Coronavirus anniversary: Experts explain what they have learned about COVID-19 in 2020

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Exactly a year since the first case of the mystery respiratory illness was reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO), a mutant, considerably more infectious strain of the coronavirus has been blamed for a dramatic surge in cases in the UK – and associated stringent new restrictions. WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told the rapid evolution of the disease demonstrated that there was no room for complacency. He explained: “We must rebuild from the COVID-19 crisis on the foundation of human rights and look at 2020 as a reminder that health is the most precious commodity on earth.

“The recent news around vaccines brought us hope, and we are starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel, with that light getting brighter as more countries are taking steps to prepare for vaccination.

“But we need to remember that, although vaccines will help to end the pandemic, they won’t solve everything.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, we still need to take all necessary measures to prevent the virus from spreading and causing more deaths.

“We need to follow through and to adopt a ‘do-it-all’ approach, we need to continue to practice the physical distancing, staying home if asked, following all the measures that are put in place to keep ourselves safe.

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Mr Jasarevic said the WHO was focusing on three main priorities for 2021:

  • Fill in the funding gap of US$4.3 billion to procure vaccines for the most needy countries
  • Secure political commitment from world leaders for equitable access to vaccines.
  • Prepare countries to deliver vaccines by assessing gaps in infrastructure.

Senior Scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Professor Amesh Adalja has been at the forefront of efforts to analyse and track the progress of COVID-19.

He told “We’ve learned what many of us in the field had been saying for years: that an efficiently spreading respiratory virus with the capability of spreading from people who do not know their contagiousness is essentially uncontainable and that the key is to spring action immediately.

“Giving a virus with these characteristics a head start essentially means it will be nearly impossible to catch up.

“It’s also now appreciated that no matter how prepared a country may be if political leadership evades the gravity of the situation it is unlikely an effective offensive against the virus can be executed.”

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he current COVID-19 outbreak has shown that our world is still incredibly unprepared

Jessica Bell

As a senior program officer with the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a US think tank which analyses major threats including deadly pathogens, Jessica Bell earlier this year warned that the world needed to brace itself for more outbreaks.

And speaking this week, she said little had changed since then.

She told “The current COVID-19 outbreak has shown that our world is still incredibly unprepared to address a disease outbreak of pandemic proportions.

“While some progress has been made in identifying global preparedness gaps, much less progress has been made in identifying incentives and financing to fill those gaps.

“The not so distant past has shown us that each outbreak has required greater United Nations coordination across health, humanitarian, and security sectors.

“Advances in technology have made it easier and faster to make and modify pandemic agents. This coordination and the implied national-level leadership has shown to be vital in responding successfully to epidemics and pandemics.“

Ms Bell added: “There will be a next one. The hope within the community is that we’ll get past this cycle of panic and neglect and focus more on longer-term pandemic preparedness.

“This will take dedicated and consistent funding towards health security and political commitment to global institutions such as the World Health Organisation.

“We need specific action to get ahead of the next outbreak, which could be even worse than what we’re seeing with COVID-19.”

Looking ahead, she stressed it was crucial to address “enormous global gaps in pandemic preparedness”.

She added: “A heads-of-state summit – chaired by the United Nations Secretary General and in coordination with the WHO – would help to create political will for sustainable health security financing and international emergency response capabilities.

“We also need to see the establishment of some kind of global health security financing mechanism to fill identified preparedness gaps. Such a mechanism could provide new incentives for countries to invest.

“Lastly, the world could see considerable advancements in leadership such as through the UN and WHO if there was a permanent unit or facilitator within the UN for high-consequence biological events.

“This coordination function could help to ensure that capacities aren’t overwhelmed in the current international epidemic response architecture and result in even more casualties.”

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