Failures in preparation and response led to a worsened crisis.


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An independent panel commissioned by the World Health Organization to analyze the global response to COVID-19 has concluded that a "combination of poor strategic choices, unwillingness to tackle inequalities, and an uncoordinated system created a toxic cocktail which allowed the pandemic to turn into a catastrophic human crisis."

Figure. Patients in ... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. Patients in a COVID-19 emergency unit in a hospital in New Delhi, India. Photo by Rebecca Conway / Getty Images.

The panel's report, released in May, outlines significant failures in two major areas: preparation and response. Despite urgent warnings from public health and infectious disease experts of the high likelihood of a virus such as SARS-CoV-2 capable of causing a pandemic, the world did little to prepare. Specific recommended changes from multiple commissions were mostly ignored, allowing COVID-19 to rise to the level of a pandemic within three months of the first identified cases.


After the first cases were identified, there was some rapid action taken but also "delay, hesitation, and denial" by national and international leaders, both in alerting countries about the level of threat and in subsequent actions to contain transmission. According to the panel, February was a "lost month when steps could and should have been taken to curtail the epidemic."


Even as transmission and deaths increased, countries failed to recognize the seriousness of the threat, and many chose a less costly "wait and see" strategy, hoping for new information to become available. Countries such as Vietnam, New Zealand, and Thailand that responded aggressively, particularly regarding case identification, contact tracing, and isolation, and also coordinated across different governmental and public health sectors, were most effective in controlling transmission. Countries with uncoordinated efforts that undermined science, denied the seriousness of the pandemic, and fostered distrust had the poorest results.


Regardless of approach, response to the virus was hampered by a worldwide crisis in supplies, including personal protective equipment and oxygen, and the inability of health care systems to respond to the surge in demand. The volume and acuity of patients strained both infrastructure and workforce.


The panel's recommendations include stronger, coordinated leadership at all levels, investment in preparedness now rather than waiting for the next pandemic, an improved international surveillance system with rapid alert capabilities, a negotiated plan for the production and distribution of vaccines, and access to funding for preparedness and to inject cash immediately at the onset of a pandemic to curtail disease spread. The panel also calls for immediate action to stop ongoing transmission of SARS-CoV-2, particularly global efforts to scale up vaccination.-Karen Roush, PhD, RN, FNP-BC, news director


The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response. COVID-19: make it the last pandemic. World Health Organization; 2021 May.