Elevating political leadership for Pandemic Preparedness and Response Meeting with the UN Assembly

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response

We thank the President of the General Assembly for enabling this briefing session to be held, and we thank all representatives of Member States who are joining us today. We are very grateful for your time.

We have come to you today because the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response has recommended that the UN General Assembly play a key role in ensuring that the international system is better able to act against future pandemic threats. But, first, let me comment on the context in which we meet, and then on the findings of the Panel and how they led to its recommendations.

The daily news continues to bring us scenes of hospitals and health workers overwhelmed, and health systems stretched to breaking point, reminding us of the continuing socio-economic and human tragedy of this pandemic. As ever, where resources are least, people suffer most, but the impact of this pandemic also continues everywhere. In some places, vaccines are blunting the worst of the impact, but for too many countries, supplies are so limited and prospects for access are pushed so far into the future that hope is turning to despair.

Globally, there have been nearly 190 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 4 million deaths reported to WHO, but these shocking figures are almost certainly an underestimate of the real toll of the disease.

This pandemic is an ongoing disaster which the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response believes could have been averted if the countries of the world had heeded the many warnings and prepared their health and surveillance systems – and then, when the outbreak began, if they had moved together in mutual transparency and solidarity.

In May 2020, the World Health Assembly passed a consensus resolution requesting that the WHO Director-General initiate an impartial, independent, and comprehensive review of the international health response to COVID-19. Dr Tedros then asked Prime Minister Clark and me to convene an Independent Panel for that purpose.  Prime Minister Clark is with me today from Auckland, New Zealand.

Our main report was presented to the 74th World Health Assembly in May of this year. The wide attention paid to it suggests that the world may be prepared to change course and agree to take steps to prevent a future pandemic catastrophe. Our Panel believes that it is essential that it does.

The Panel concluded that COVID-19 went from being a localised outbreak to a pandemic because of a myriad of failures and gaps in pandemic preparedness and response.  At the outset, there was a failure to learn from the past.

There are reviews of previous health disasters that have gathered dust in basements of agencies and governments – this despite leaders in global health and development frequently warning of the risk of a global pandemic.

I know all too well that after Ebola struck Liberia and our neighbours, sincere promises of ‘never again’ were made but it took years an effective prevention response leaving us vulnerable to the next devastating pandemic.

So today there is a choice – to carry on with business as usual with the inevitability of a future pandemic catastrophe, or to make real and lasting change.

That choice is clear: now we must act – this must be the last pandemic to cause devastation on the scale we are witnessing today. We need a stronger international system for pandemic preparedness and response that understands the threats, is alert, and is poised to take collective action. The job can’t be done by any single country working alone. It can’t even be done by a group of countries, no matter how willing, because we are only as strong as our weakest link. Therefore, the UN General Assembly has a decisive role to play in strengthening the multilateral infrastructure so that it can identify and respond more quickly to the next virus with pandemic potential.