An international panel of experts has issued strong criticism of governments around the world over their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, calling their performance “untrustworthy and ineffective” and saying they have suffered ” a massive global failure on many levels”.
The judgment, which exposed a detrimental lack of international cooperation, was published Wednesday in a 57-page final report by The Lancet COVID-19 Commission that also presented policy recommendations aimed at preventing future pandemic disasters.
Controversy around the commission’s chairman and some of the report’s assessments of the origins of the virus, however, threaten to overshadow the overall findings and recommendations.
Officially, more than 7 million people have died since the SARS-CoV-2 virus was first identified in late 2019, according to data from the Institute for Health metrics and Evaluation (IHME), referenced in the article. of the Lancet. But IHME, an independent health research organization based at the University of Washington, also estimates the true number of deaths from COVID-19 — including unreported deaths — is actually more than 17. million.
“This staggering death toll is both a profound tragedy and a massive global failure on many levels,” said the report, co-authored by forty experts in the fields of health sciences, business, finance and public policies.
“Too many governments have failed to uphold basic standards of institutional rationality and transparency, too many people – often influenced by misinformation – have disrespected and protested basic public health precautions, and major world powers have have not collaborated to control the pandemic.”
The findings were made in consultation with 173 experts from a dozen task forces working as part of the COVID-19 Commission, which was formed by the highly prestigious medical journal The Lancet.
The lack of coordination between countries, as well as the critical delays in notifying the initial outbreak, in recognizing airborne exposure as the primary method of transmission, and in implementing measures to slow the spread are only some of the main criticisms made in the report. The Commission also cited the failure to ensure equitable distribution of protective equipment, devices and vaccine hoarding, to combat misinformation and to protect vulnerable populations.
The commissioners said successfully tackling emerging infectious diseases requires pro-social regulation and behavior – prioritizing “the needs of society as a whole, rather than narrow individual interests”.
“Prosociality was at an all-time low in many societies over the past 2 years,” the report said.
“In places where social trust is low, prosocial behaviors are rejected by many groups within society. Moreover, at the national level, many governments have proven to be untrustworthy and ineffective.
ENDING THE PANDEMIC AND PREPARING FOR THE NEXT
Despite the failures of the past two years, the panel emphasized the urgency of global cooperation in order to end the current COVID-19 pandemic and be ready for the next.
Among other measures, the panel called for vigilance around new variants, coordinated surveillance to monitor risks around future waves, and pushed for high vaccine coverage globally. They specifically called on China, the United States, the EU, India and the Russian Federation to put aside geopolitical rivalries and called on United Nations organizations and major economies to take the lead.
The World Health Organization (WHO), which has been repeatedly criticized over the past two and a half years for its handling of the pandemic, should continue to lead international responses to emerging infectious diseases, the group recommended. But the panel added that the WHO should be given regulatory power, including the power to inspect and regulate research facilities that handle dangerous pathogens, and given increased financial support for research and development. .
Commissioners criticized the organization’s slow response to the airborne nature of the virus and the measures needed to limit this type of transmission, and recommended reforming the governance of the World Health Organization to better respond to the pressing and controversial issues.
The WHO, for its part, welcomed the overarching recommendations made by the commission and said they were aligned with the organization’s mandates and views, but in a detailed statement also took issue with criticism of its response. to the pandemic.
The report supported previous calls for a global pandemic agreement and also recommended reassessing and updating the International Health Regulations (IHR) as well as stricter regulatory oversight to prevent natural and linked transmissions. research and strengthen biosafety measures for laboratory research.
CONTROVERSY AROUND THE ORIGINS OF THE VIRUS
Commissioners also strongly supported calls for an objective, independent and transparent debate on the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and for the international community to intensify its research in this area, a particularly controversial and sensitive subject for the group in due to past comments. made by the chairman of the commission, Jeffrey Sachs.
Sachs, an American economist and professor at Columbia University, has publicly expressed the possibility that the virus that causes COVID-19 may have accidentally leaked from an American biotechnology laboratory and could even potentially have artificial origins – theories unsubstantiated that some experts fear could tarnish the work of the Commission. Scientists were particularly appalled when Sachs repeated those theories in August on a podcast with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a renowned anti-vaccination proponent who pushed conspiracy theories around vaccines.
Sach’s views sparked a private dispute with other panel members, according to The Washington Post.
“Along with a few other commissioners, I helped lead the effort to keep the nonsensical plotting and the whacka-doodle out of the final report,” Peter Hotez, panel member and virologist at Baylor College of Medicine, told the newspaper.
“I will be disappointed if conspiracies of COVID origin end up undermining some of the important and legitimate gaps in our understanding of the emergence of SARS, MERS and covid.”
The Lancet report said the Commission and the independent experts consulted by the group agreed that “hypotheses about natural and laboratory fallout are at play and require further investigation”.
The report says a natural spillover event – meaning the virus was transmitted from an animal to a human in a natural event unrelated to research – was one of two main possible methods of transmission.
The other potential source is laboratory-related research or release, either through a researcher infected in the field or in the laboratory with a naturally occurring or genetically engineered virus, the report concludes.
Specifically, the report criticized the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) for their lack of transparency in disclosing the type of SARS-CoV-related research they support.
“Independent researchers have not yet investigated US laboratories engaged in laboratory manipulation of SARS-CoV-like viruses, or details of the laboratory research that was underway in Wuhan,” the authors said.
“Furthermore, the U.S. National Institutes of Health resisted releasing details of research into the SARS-CoV-related viruses they had supported, providing largely redacted information only as required by the lawsuits in under the Freedom of Information Act.”
The Lancet report, however, did not provide new information on the origins and notably did not mention recently published scientific papers which provided further support for the prevailing belief that the epicenter of the pandemic was on a market in Wuhan, China.
Virology experts have expressed frustration with unsubstantiated theories about lab leaks.
Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at the University of Saskatchewan and Michael Worobey, head of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, noted in a Thursday article opinion on foreign policy that Sachs has no expertise in virology, evolution, epidemiology or public health and argues that pushing the theory was “dangerous”.
In a long twitter thread On Thursday, Rasmussen sharply criticized Sachs and the commission’s assessment of origins, saying insufficient attention was given to this aspect of the report.
“I’m just going to walk out the door with my assessment of the LC report in regards to origins. That’s 1.5 pages of scorching garbage,” she tweeted, pointing out that there was no evidence to support a lab origin.
“For months now, Sachs has been telling increasingly outrageous stories about the pandemic from a lab following so-called ‘gain-of-function’ research. These origin stories are notable for how often they blame “American biotech”.… Lives literally depend on the choices we make moving forward when it comes to pandemic preparedness. I hope we will follow science where it leads us, with humility and courage.
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