The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How did an outbreak become a pandemic? Too easily.

Tourists visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa, reopened as Italy eases covid-19 restrictions. (Jennifer Lorenzini/Reuters)

WHY DID the coronavirus outbreak that started in Wuhan, China, become a devastating global pandemic so fast? Since the first outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, which caused 774 deaths over six months, plenty of warnings had been issued to prepare for a much worse disaster. As a new report from an independent commission made clear, the warnings were ignored. The current pandemic has been a “terrible wake-up call,” it says. “Now the world needs to wake up.”

The 13-member Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, led by former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, was created last May amid much criticism of how the World Health Organization and member nations had responded to the new coronavirus outbreak. The panel scrutinized what went wrong and made recommendations for the future. Its verdict is scathing, although it stopped short of naming names.

After the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, the panel reminds us, at least 11 high-level panels and commissions issued 16 reports with recommendations to improve global pandemic preparedness. Most were never implemented.

In December 2019 and early January 2020, some clinicians in Wuhan responded to the outbreak with “diligence,” the panel found. The virus genome was sequenced quickly. But China’s national leaders covered up from the public, for several weeks, information that the virus was transmissible among humans — which the panel tucks into a chronology. In the end, the WHO alert system to the world was balky at this critical moment. The WHO followed legally binding rules from 2005 for step-by-step action and verification, which braked action when speed was essential.

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Even when evidence was preliminary, the panel says, the WHO should have taken rapid, precautionary action. Moreover, when the WHO finally declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on Jan. 30, 2020, most nations just shrugged. February was a “lost month” because nations didn’t know what to do, or decided to “wait and see.” That month, President Donald Trump said four times that the virus would disappear. Without naming the United States directly, the panel noted trenchantly that those nations suffering the most were those that “devalued science, denied the potential impact of the pandemic, delayed comprehensive action, and allowed distrust to undermine efforts.”

The panel calls for the WHO to be given new, stronger powers and sustainable financing. As it is, the WHO is a member organization of the United Nations, without regulatory muscle. The panel says the WHO should be allowed to publish information without prior approval of nation governments and get access to outbreak sites on short notice.

The panel calls for creating a “new global system” for disease surveillance and early warning, “based on full transparency by all parties, using state-of-the-art digital tools,” including open-source scanning for emerging outbreaks and deploying cutting-edge genomics to track the spread of pathogens. The world has been without disease radar for far too long. What happens in Wuhan does not stay in Wuhan, as the past 17 months have shown. Let’s hope the panel’s call for action will not be stuck on a shelf and forgotten.

Read more:

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Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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