Former PM Helen Clark on panel’s call for reform over ‘runaway pandemic’

Former NZ PM Helen Clark
Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark ... "are the lessons of history learned and these issues addressed or are we doomed to repeat them again?" Image: Anadolu Agency File

RNZ News

An international panel co-chaired by former prime minister Helen Clark is calling for urgent reform of the world’s pandemic preparedness.

In its review, the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response identified a systematic failing to protect people from covid-19 – on both national and international levels.

New Zealand was named as one of the countries ordering up large on covid-19 in a section warning of “vaccine nationalism”, in which some richer countries had secured more vaccine courses than they had people.

But the report also said New Zealand and other Asia-Pacific countries had an aggressive response to combating the virus, and lessons could be learned from them.

The panel recommended essential measures it believed would mitigate future pandemics.

Clark told RNZ Morning Report there were failures, gaps and delays all along the way from the time the virus first appeared in Wuhan.

“The doctors were reasonably on the ball there in noticing the cluster and getting the tests done and there was a public bulletin put out in Wuhan … but let’s recall Wuhan didn’t lock down at all for another 23 days after that.

‘Not in medieval times’
“We’re not in medieval times where a dangerous virus goes along by donkey and foot, we’re in times where it goes on the next plane, so any delay is fatal.

“Then the WHO – which doesn’t really have the power to require or enforce anything – was quite constrained by the regulations it operates in and when eventually an emergency committee which is supposed to make recommendations about the big declaration of an emergency, when it was first convened it refused to make a recommendation … even if all of that had been quicker the reality is the slow month of February when few countries did much other than wait and watch, that was the opportunity lost to avert what has become a runaway pandemic.”

The truth of it was that China was slow to share information and what it did share was limited.

“The case information was limited, the genome took up to a week to share after it was sequenced, and so we go on. The WHO had no power to require anything. People may not realise the WHO does not have any power to say ‘we’re coming to look’.

It doesn’t have the power to publish the information a country gives it without permission. It’s quite restricted in being precautionary because the international health regulations require evidence … and then it has to convene this emergency committee to hear their recommendations, and when it convened, it did not want to act.

“This is all a bit hopeless really.”

Clark said the issue was going to be “are the lessons of history learned and these issues addressed or are we doomed to repeat them again? We can’t count on waiting 102 years again like we have from the flu pandemic for the next pathogen.

“We are living in times when zoonotic diseases – these transferred from animal to human viruses – are appearing much more rapidly. It could be next month, it could be next year. We can’t mess around in getting the new system and the new powers in place.”

Vaccine nationalism
Clark said: “What I think has happened is what when countries like ours prudently started placing orders they didn’t know which vaccine was going to come out trumps. So … the ones it ordered … have all come through as legitimate and viable vaccines.

“So here we are with all these courses and we can’t use them all. We are using the Pfizer one. So our message to countries like our own is put them back into the pool. We have a huge supply problem with the vaccine. There is nowhere near enough vaccine to do the job that needs to be done globally,” she said.

“If we can redistribute that which is not going to be used by the high-income countries now, that certainly helps to cover the most at risk and health workers and so on in poorer countries.

“Then we talk a lot in the report about the need to scale up production. The manufacturers have kept it pretty close to their chest. You need a huge scale-up around the world to get the level of supply that we need … to do this on an ongoing basis globally requires a vast manufacturing scale-up from what we have right now.”

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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