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Pandemic Unpreparedness

The world is still struggling to combat COVID-19, and the reforms needed to ensure global readiness for the next novel pathogen are not proceeding fast enough. Unless that changes, the current pandemic surely will not be the last.

AUCKLAND – With countries still muddling through waves of highly transmissible variants of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, it is clearly premature to declare the pandemic over. Somewhere in the world, another dangerous pathogen – perhaps currently living in a bat or forming in a pig’s gut – could make the jump to humans, spread, and thrive. Many human diseases originate through such “spillovers.” In the worst cases, as with COVID-19, these organisms become serious health threats and put the whole world at risk.

If such a nightmare happened again today, would we be ready? Could the World Health Organization immediately act on a credible report of a threat and warn all countries effectively? If the new pathogen could spread almost undetected, would the global system race to coordinate a high-level response and ensure that everyone had access to the information, medical supplies, and money needed to limit the damage? Would every country have a plan to minimize the strain on health systems, schools, businesses, and livelihoods?

The short answer to all these questions is no. At the current pace of change, global readiness to manage a new pandemic threat is years away. We should be very worried about that, and also about the lack of high-level leadership to end the COVID-19 emergency.