By Solarina Ho
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TORONTO (CTV Network) — An international panel of experts issued sharp critiques of governments around the world over their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, calling their performances “untrustworthy and ineffective” and saying they suffered “massive global failure at multiple levels.”
The judgment, which highlighted a detrimental lack of international cooperation, was published in a 57-page final report by The Lancet COVID-19 Commission on Wednesday that also outlined policy recommendations aimed at preventing future pandemic disasters.
Controversy around the chair of the commission, and some of the report’s assessment around the origins of the virus threaten to overshadow the overarching findings and recommendations, however.
Officially, more than 7 million people have died since the SARS-CoV-2 virus was first identified in late 2019, according to data by the Institute for Health metrics and Evaluation (IHME), referenced in the Lancet paper. But the IHME, an independent health research organization based at the University of Washington, also estimates that the actual number of deaths attributable to COVID-19 – including unreported deaths – actually stand at more than 17 million.
“This staggering death toll is both a profound tragedy and a massive global failure at multiple levels,” the report, co-authored by forty experts in the fields of health sciences, business, finance, and public policy, stated.
“Too many governments have failed to adhere to basic norms of institutional rationality and transparency, too many people—often influenced by misinformation—have disrespected and protested against basic public health precautions, and the world’s major powers have failed to collaborate to control the pandemic.”
The findings were made in consultation with 173 experts from a dozen task forces working under the COVID-19 Commission, which was formed by the highly prestigious, peer-reviewed Lancet medical journal.
The lack of coordination among countries, along with critical delays in reporting the initial outbreak, in acknowledging airborne exposure as the primary method of transmission, and in implementing measures to slow the spread are just a few of the key critiques leveled in the report. The Commission also cited the failure to ensure equitable distribution of protective gear, devices and hoarding vaccines, to combat disinformation, and to protect vulnerable populations.
The commissioners said successfully fighting against emerging infectious diseases requires prosocial regulation and behaviour – prioritizing “the needs of society as a whole, rather than to narrow individual interests.”
“Prosociality was at a low ebb in many societies during the past 2 years,” the report stated.
“In places of low social trust, prosocial behaviours are rejected by many groups within society. Additionally, at the national level, many governments showed themselves to be untrustworthy and ineffective.” ENDING THE PANDEMIC AND PREPARING FOR THE NEXT
Despite the failures of the last two years, the panel stressed the urgency of global cooperation in order to end the current COVID-19 pandemic and be ready for the next one.
Among other measures, the panel called for vigilance around new variants, coordinated surveillance to monitor the risks around future waves, and pushed for high immunization coverage around the world. They specifically called out China, the U.S., the EU, India and the Russian Federation to set aside geopolitical rivalries and asked U.N. organizations and major economies for leadership.
The World Health Organization (WHO), which had been criticized at various points over the last two and a half years for its handling of the pandemic, should continue to lead international responses on emerging infectious diseases, the group recommended. But the panel added the WHO should hold regulatory power, including the authority to inspect and regulate research facilities that manipulate dangerous pathogens, and be given more financial support for research and development.
The commissioners were critical of the organization’s slow response to the airborne nature of the virus and the measures required to limit that type of transmission, and recommended reforming the global health organization’s governance in order to better respond to urgent and controversial issues.
The WHO, for its part, welcomed the overarching recommendations made by the commission and said they were aligned with the organization’s own mandates and views, but in a detailed statement, also disputed the criticisms over its response to the pandemic.
The report backed previous calls for a global pandemic agreement, and also recommended reassessing and updating the International Health Regulation (IHR) as well as stronger regulatory oversight to prevent natural and research-related transmissions and enhance biosafety measures for lab research. CONTROVERSY AROUND ORIGINS OF VIRUS
The commissioners also strongly backed calls for objective, independent and transparent debate on the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and for the international community to intensify its research in this area, a particularly controversial and sensitive subject for the group due to past comments made by the chair of the commission, Jeffrey Sachs.
Sachs, an American economist and professor with Columbia University, has publicly voiced the possibility that the virus that causes COVID-19 could have been accidentally leaked from a U.S. biotechnology lab and could even potentially have man-made origins – unsubstantiated theories that some experts worry could tarnish the Commission’s work. Scientists were particularly dismayed when Sachs repeated these theories in August on a podcast with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a renown anti-vaccination promoter who has pushed conspiracy theories around immunization shots.
Sachs’ views sparked a private conflict with other members of the panel, according to The Washington Post.
“Along with a couple of other commissioners, I helped lead efforts to keep the conspiracy nonsense and the whacka-doodle out of the final report,” Peter Hotez, a panel member and virologist at the Baylor College of Medicine, told the newspaper.
“I will be disappointed if COVID origin conspiracies wind up detracting from some of the important and legitimate deficiencies in our understandings of how SARS, MERS and covid emerged.”
The Lancet report stated that the Commission and independent experts consulted by the group agreed that “hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers are in play and need further investigation.”
The report said a natural spillover event – meaning the virus was transmitted from an animal to a human in a non-research-related, natural occurrence – was one of two main possible methods of transmission.
The other potential source is a research or lab-related release, either through a researcher infected in the field, or in the lab with a natural or genetically altered virus, the report concluded.
Specifically, the report was critical of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) for a lack of transparency in disclosing the type of SARS-CoV-related research it had been supporting.
“Independent researchers have not yet investigated the U.S. laboratories engaged in the laboratory manipulation of SARS-CoV-like viruses, nor have they investigated the details of the laboratory research that had been underway in Wuhan,” the authors stated.
“Moreover, the U.S. National Institutes of Health has resisted disclosing details of the research on SARS-CoV-related viruses that it had been supporting, providing extensively redacted information only as required by Freedom of Information Act lawsuits.”
The Lancet report did not offer new information, however, on the origins and notably did not mention recently published scientific papers that provided additional support for the prevailing belief that the epicenter of the pandemic was in a market in Wuhan, China.
Experts in virology have expressed frustration over unsubstantiated lab-leak theories.
Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at the University of Saskatchewan and Michael Worobey, the department head of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, noted in a Foreign Policy op-ed piece on Thursday that Sachs has no expertise in virology, evolution, epidemiology, or public health and argue that pushing the theory was “dangerous.”
In a long Twitter thread on Thursday, Rasmussen was highly critical of Sachs and the commission’s assessment of the origins, saying not enough attention was being paid to this aspect of the report.
“I’ll just come right out of the gate with my assessment of the LC report with regard to origins. It’s 1.5 pages of flaming hot garbage,” she tweeted, emphasizing that there was zero evidence supporting a lab origin.
“For months now, Sachs has progressively spun ever more outrageous tales about the pandemic originating in a lab as a result of so-called ‘gain of function’ research. These origin stories are notable because of how frequently they blame ‘U.S. biotechnology.’… Lives literally depend on the choices we make moving forward with regard to pandemic preparedness. I hope that we follow the science where it leads us, with humility and courage.”
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