A strengthened World Health Organisation, Health News, ET HealthWorld
by Prof Virander Chauhan
When the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) in January, reverberations were felt around the world. Ever since that fateful day our world has been thrown into disarray. Yet, not many would have anticipated the trajectory the pandemic would eventually take. Over 30 million total cases and more than a million deaths show how unprepared the world was for such a crisis – one that does not look like subsiding anytime soon – despite warnings.
Each country responded differently and as best as they could to this unprecedented challenge. While the pandemic has come at enormous human and economic cost for the world, the implications have been severe for resource-strapped countries, even as many had to impose nationwide lockdowns. Fragile health systems in both developed and developing nations have been exposed highlighting the importance of investing in public health systems. It is in our interest to learn from this crisis and be ready for future pandemics.
Amidst all the chaos, the spotlight has well and truly been on the WHO. This attention has resulted in increased scrutiny and even criticism of WHO’s response and guidance during the initial stages of the outbreak, with some calling into question the whole purpose, of the WHO. As our scientific understanding of the science around it grows, the guidance to deal with the situation needs to be updated, revised and sometimes significantly revisited. It has been difficult to assess threat levels especially when the challenge spans across the world. In hindsight, the multilateral agency could have responded differently to certain situations, however, given the circumstances and the available information on the highly infectious virus, WHO did the best that it could in the initial few months. The response from the scientific community to the virus has been incredible and ever since the first genome was sequenced, the WHO has since been the largest source of credible information on COVID-19.
The WHO has been warning member states and the public concerning the outbreak since January, collecting and synthesizing and sharing information on the virus with all countries. So far, it has shipped millions of diagnostics, personal protective equipment, and medical oxygen around the world. It has supported with the training of millions of health workers in addressing needs such as infection prevention and control. It is playing a crucial role in the scientific response to the pandemic, accelerating the development of diagnostic tools, therapeutics and vaccines. In the early stages of the pandemic, WHO coordinated multi-country ‘Solidarity’ trials of leading repurposed drug candidates in member countries. A strong WHO has much to offer to the world, on only needs to go as far back as the previous health emergencies to understand how.
Globally, the WHO has always been at the forefront of disease surveillance and outbreak detection. During emergencies the organisation has moved swiftly to support affected populations, reaching across borders to co-ordinate action, and support national and regional responses. For instance, two weeks after declaring the Zika virus outbreak an emergency, the WHO launched the global Zika Strategic Response Framework and Joint Operations Plan to guide a comprehensive international response. Against all odds, the WHO fast-tracked multi-country trials of the Ebola vaccine to go along with complementary control activities and interrupt chains of transmission of the deadly virus.
For resource-strapped nations, the WHO’s contribution is not limited to emergency response. The WHO continues to support efforts to ensure that the fight against other major health issues do not get side-lined in this pandemic. Since its inception, the WHO has played a leading role in achieving significant public health milestones, most notably the eradication of smallpox and the near elimination of polio globally. In India, the WHO has been supporting the government in addressing diverse health issues such as tuberculosis, neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), malnutrition, immunization efforts, tobacco control and road safety, among others. Its role in the elimination of smallpox and polio in India has left a legacy of improved health care system, cold chain infrastructure and a vast network for surveillance of vaccine preventable diseases.
As we look towards an uncertain future, developing safe and efficacious vaccine against COVID-19 is the most pressing challenge of our times, but an even bigger challenge will be their equitable distribution. Led by the WHO, agencies such as the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and GAVI – the Vaccine Alliance, are coordinating on global vaccine development and distribution efforts. The WHO recently established the COVAX facility, a vehicle through which all member states have agreed that anti-COVID-19 vaccines would be fairly and equitably shared. Through this ambitious platform, the WHO aims to deliver a staggering 2 billion vaccine doses. It is the only global initiative that is working with governments and manufacturers to ensure COVID-19 vaccines will be available worldwide to both higher-income and lower-income countries.
Given the global health crisis ushered by COVID-19, it is abundantly clear that the world needs a WHO now more than ever. We require multilateral institutions that operate internationally providing countries with high quality scientific information, guidance and a channel to share. This coming together for a common good is the need of the hour to fight this deadly coronavirus.
Prof Virander Chauhan, former Director of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology where he currently holds the Arturo Falaschi Chair
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