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The world is unprepared for new ‘age of pandemics,’ G-20 panel warns

A nurse displayed a syringe containing the Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination campaign in the village of Oguzlar, Turkey, on July 8.
A nurse displayed a syringe containing the Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination campaign in the village of Oguzlar, Turkey, on July 8.ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — While the global struggle continues against the death and devastation of COVID-19, a panel of independent experts is warning that the world is alarmingly unprepared to deal with the next pandemic.

The panel, convened by the Group of 20 major economies and cochaired by former US treasury secretary Larry Summers, called Friday for sweeping reforms to the World Health Organization and billions in new spending to stave off the next outbreak, which they warned could be far deadlier than the coronavirus.

“Unless things are done, we’re unlikely to have the surveillance, we’re unlikely to have the production surge capacity for tests and for vaccines ... we’re unlikely to have the international mechanisms to support the poorest countries, and ... we’re likely to again be inadequately resourced,” Summers told the Globe.

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In a sobering 92-page report, the panel warned that the world is “far from equipped to prevent or stop the next pandemic.” It outlined steps that must be taken quickly to prepare for this new “age of pandemics.”

“COVID-19 was not a black swan event. It may also constitute a dress rehearsal for a far worse pandemic, which could come at any time,” the 21 health and finance experts concluded in their report, “A Global Deal for Our Pandemic Age.” “We must not let exhaustion from efforts to get past the COVID-19 pandemic defer actions to address the growing risks ahead. The threat to humanity is too great.”

Summers and the other cochairs — Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director general of the World Trade Organization, and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore’s senior minister — presented the panel’s findings Friday at a two-day summit of G-20 finance ministers and central bank governors in Venice, just a day after a stark new milestone in the pandemic. The world’s COVID death toll topped 4 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, and experts believe the figure understates total coronavirus deaths.

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“Rather than thinking we were unlucky with COVID, the lesson may be that we were lucky with Ebola, lucky with SARS, lucky with MERS, lucky with N1H1,” Summers said in the interview, adding that the risks of a coronavirus pandemic have been doubling nearly every decade.

“I think for the next quarter-century, the risks to human well-being, security, and prosperity from global health issues are at least comparable to — and maybe greater than — the risks from climate change,” he said.

The report echoed recent calls for reforms by two other high-level groups empaneled by the World Health Organization. The report for the G-20, which includes the US, China, Japan, Russia, and the European Union, declared the COVID-19 pandemic far from over and said “urgent and concerted actions and additional funding” are needed to get the majority of the world’s population vaccinated and prevent the emergence of more deadly variants.

Okonjo-Iweala, a former finance and foreign minister in Nigeria, stressed on Friday that the G-20 nations needed to do more to address the lack of access to coronavirus vaccines in developing nations.

But the focus was on future threats and the need to “prepare for a world where pandemics are more frequent and increasingly dangerous.”

The report calls for at least doubling current international spending on pandemic prevention and preparedness to $75 billion over five years. That includes $10 billion a year to finance a Global Threats Fund to improve surveillance for future pandemics and increase the supply of vaccines, treatments, and other medical resources needed to respond to outbreaks more quickly.

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Another new initiative would be a Global Health Threats Board, loosely modeled on the financial stability board the G-20 created after the 2008 financial crisis. The new board would make sure financing is available for countries and organizations to prepare for and respond to future outbreaks as well as ensure the money is used effectively. It’s part of a more multilateral approach to future pandemics needed to avoid the major gaps that developed this time, such as a lack of crucial medical supplies around the world, Shanmugaratnam said.

“It has to be about collective investment in global public goods that every country benefits from, rich and poor,” he said.

The panel recommends more funding for a reformed WHO, which has been criticized for its response to the pandemic, and for international financial organizations such as the World Bank to bolster funding for pandemic preparedness and prevention.

More broadly, the report calls for countries to increase their domestic investment in public health systems and improve their ability to watch for and contain new outbreaks. It recommends additional spending over the next five years by low- and middle-income countries of about 1 percent of their total economic output.

The additional $75 billion in international spending is “the absolute minimum” needed and is “minuscule” compared to the estimated $10 trillion governments worldwide have already spent to fight the pandemic, the report said. The International Monetary Fund has estimated the total economic damage of this pandemic will rise to $22 trillion by 2025.

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At a news conference Friday in Venice, Summers likened the return on the funding to hitting the jackpot on a stock purchase.

“The opportunity to invest tens of billions of dollars and avoid tens of trillions of dollars in costs is the public sector equivalent of buying Amazon in the 1990s,” he said, referencing the tech giant. “It offers immense returns and will be profoundly regretted by any who miss the opportunity.”

The call to pump more money into the WHO is controversial given its missteps in handling the pandemic, including waiting until Jan. 30, 2020, to declare COVID-19 a global health emergency. The report recommends that fees charged to countries to fund the WHO be increased so they make up two-thirds of the organization’s base budget, a boost of about $1 billion a year.

Summers acknowledged the concerns about the WHO.

“I don’t think anybody, even at the World Health Organization, is fully satisfied with the job the World Health Organization has done,” he told the Globe. “I think that’s why we also put substantial emphasis on governance reforms as well as financial reforms.”

The G-20 nations, which account for about 80 percent of the world’s economic output, can play a vital role in laying the groundwork for the fight against future pandemics, but the effort must be global, Summers said. The next six months will be pivotal in getting world leaders behind the report’s recommendations. President Biden and the other G-20 heads of state are scheduled to meet in Rome in October.

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“There’s always a concern that there are new priorities and that’s why we think this moment, while the world is still seized with COVID, is a very important moment for this problem,” he said.


Jim Puzzanghera can be reached at jim.puzzanghera@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @JimPuzzanghera.