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Public Affairs Update 3 March 2023

March 1 2023 ‘Lack of preparedness for the next pandemic is an emergency’ – LINK – Abraar Karan writes that if we’re to be ready for the next pandemic, we can’t fall back into the same cycle of panic and neglect. He writes that President Joe Biden announced has announced the end of the covid-19 public health emergency that was put in place in the United States by the Trump administration in 2020. The World Health Organization (WHO) has signalled that it too may end covid-19’s designation as a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) when meeting in the coming months, although for now it hasn’t made any changes. Key measures needed to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses are also lacking. He states that one of the lowest hanging, most easily scalable interventions—masks—are still contested. Previous problems identified in masking efforts, including the lack of fit testing for the public, have yet to be resolved. Low uptake of booster vaccines, even in high risk settings such as nursing homes, highlights the ongoing challenge of vaccine hesitancy, despite data continuing to show that vaccinations reduce real world transmission of SARS-CoV-2. He argues that the next problematic SARS-CoV-2 variant is likely ahead of us, but so too are a number of other viruses with pandemic potential, including H5N1, which recently resulted in the death of a child and hospitalisation of her father in Cambodia. Major limitations in our genomic surveillance infrastructure remain, however, which prevent us from quickly detecting and acting on new outbreaks. He says that while the US administration and the WHO may be moving towards the end of this pandemic emergency – the lack of preparedness for the next infectious respiratory outbreak—which could be at any time—is itself an emergency we must solve. 

February 27 2023 ‘WHO Pandemic Accord Negotiations’ – LINK – This week the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body (INB) is meeting to negotiate on a global pandemic accord. Early issues which have arisen include divisions between the global North and South. WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyusus appealed to member states “not to repeat the same mistakes” made during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr Tedros also notified the INB that the two United Nations ambassadors from Morocco and Israel, who are facilitating the UN summit on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response in New York in September, were observing the proceedings to “listen to all the stakeholders”. In early negotiations a number of member states including India, Namibia and Indonesia have raised concerns about how equity was not mainstreamed throughout the document. According to Namibia, it appeared as though equity was “voluntary”, while Indonesia has appealed for equity to be considered both between and within countries. Mexico, speaking for Latin America, was concerned about the lack of “binding language” and incentives to encourage equity. Meanwhile, the US stated that a “commitment to equity must address inequities not only between countries but also within them, not just protecting populations from pandemics but also from illness, death and disrupted access to essential health care services during pandemics, including sexual and reproductive health services”. In addition, the US, Japan and India expressed disquiet about the accord prescribing “specific allocations of domestic budgets or GDP” to pandemic preparedness and response.

February 23 2023 ‘Social Europe – Pandemic preparedness: new vaccines are not enough’ – LINK – Maurizia Mezza and Stuart Blume write that crucial to control of the Covid-19 pandemic was the development, testing and production of vaccines in record time – it was a mere 326 days from release of the virus’ genetic sequence to authorisation of the first vaccines. This lesson, already being drawn, plays into widespread faith in technological solutions to social and environmental problems. For the Oslo-based Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, speed of vaccine development is key. At the end of 2022, CEPI issued a report detailing how future pandemic-beating vaccines could be produced in just 100 days. Unfortunately, other lessons which can and should be drawn from the Covid-19 experience cannot count on similar support. In the US the development of a vaccine, it can be argued, led to a side-lining of socially and culturally important questions around COVID-19 as there was a presumption that the vaccine could solve all problems. These included inequitable access to vaccines, liability in the event of vaccine-related injury, and vaccine refusal and hesitancy. Policy-makers began to address these issues only later, when vaccination campaigns were well under way in much of the world. Now there is a risk that pandemic preparedness is again being dominated by a single-minded focus on technological solutions.