Promises to invest in pandemic preparedness to prevent a repeat of the current crisis are yet to be backed up with adequate resources, experts have warned, ahead of a meeting of G20 health and finance ministers this week.
In a draft statement seen by The Telegraph and set to be published after a summit on Thursday, ministers concede that “major gaps still exist in global pandemic preparedness and response” and commit to closing them.
“We recognize the important link between investment in public health and economic resilience and growth, both in countering the current crisis and in the long term,” the draft communique reads.
“We will work together to lay the foundation for targeted actions to help respond to the most immediate challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and ensure that the world is better prepared to curb the impact of future health-related crises,” it later adds.
The wording has been welcomed by commentators, who say it is the culmination of years of lobbying for governments to see health as a long-term investment, rather than an immediate cost.
But there are concerns that action will fall short of the rhetoric and that the cycle of short-term thinking that has dominated approaches to global health challenges - from antimicrobial resistance to pandemic preparedness - will continue.
“A strong statement is the first step, and we really welcome it,” said Alan Donnelly, convener of the G20 Health and Development Partnership, an advocacy organisation.
“But the next step is to ensure that the financial framework is put in place - with innovative finance, government finance and philanthropy - to make sure that we're never put into the situation that we've faced in the last six months again.
“We've had to respond very much as though we've had an earthquake,” he said. “We can't deal with health in that way, we need strategic investment from a long-term perspective.”
On Monday, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) published a separate report providing a stark assessment of the international Covid-19 response, calling it a “a collective failure to take pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response seriously and prioritize it accordingly.”
Last year the panel published its inaugural report, warning the world was chronically unprepared for a global health crisis. This year, having been proved correct, the board has called for stronger multinational cooperation and a UN summit on global health security.
Members of the panel include Gro Harlem Brundtland, former head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, George Gao, director general of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the US.
Like the G20 Health and Development partnership, the body also urged for more responsive financial systems and the establishment of a framework to prepare for and respond to future health emergencies.
“It would take 500 years to spend as much on investing in preparedness as the world is losing due to Covid-19,” the report concludes.
“We must take heed of the consequences of not having robust and sustainably financed global preparedness plans - both to end this pandemic and to be better equipped to deal with inevitable future crises,” Dr Farrar added.
Mr Donnelly noted that even current initiatives to tackle the coronavirus pandemic lack adequate resources.
For instance while the ACT-Accelerator - a World Health Organisation-led initiative which aims to fast-track the development, production, and equitable distribution of Covid-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines - has received $3 billion to date, a funding gap of $35bn remains.
“The big question now is whether these resources will be provided. It doesn't all have to come from governments - we could learn huge lessons from green finance, for instance - but there is a £15bn funding gap for ACT this year alone,” Mr Donnelly added.
The draft G20 health and finance ministers statement, which could be adjusted before it is published on Thursday, is also notable for its support of the International Health Regulations (IHR), the set of rules underpinning the WHO’s response to pandemics.
The communique reads: “We reaffirm our commitment to full compliance with the International Health Regulations (IHR 2005) and the continued sharing of timely, transparent and standardized data and information between countries including on health measures and the effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical interventions.”
These international laws, established in 2005, underpin the framework used by the WHO to declare a public health emergency, which it announced on January 30.
But in the months since, the United States, a member of the G20, has been a fierce critic of the WHO, accusing the organisation of acting slowly.
Commentators have consistently pointed out that the WHO has few tools to force countries to cooperate under the IHRs and that US criticisms of the organisation are based on a willful or deliberate misunderstanding of international law.
“The WHO is in a really difficult position,” said Dr Clare Wenham, professor of global health policy at the London School of Economics. “They’re walking a tightrope because the IHRs are not enforceable. If they pushed China too far, there was a risk that the government would just say ‘no’, close lines of communication and stop sharing anything at all.”
In August, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO, announced that an advisory committee had been established to establish whether “any changes to the IHR may be necessary to ensure this powerful tool of international law is as effective as possible.”
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