Omicron underlines the need for global pandemic preparedness

Frankly Speaking

Sustainable Livelihoods

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt discusses the need for a massive international effort to ensure Covid-19 is not followed by more pandemics, and finds the outlook daunting.

Even before the new Omicron variant of Covid-19 began to panic financial markets and spur another rash of lockdown-style measures, epidemiologists had been warning of mutations that might make the coronavirus an enduring feature of life on earth.

Researchers point to the still unanswered questions about Covid-19’s origin and evolving characteristics. It’s possible, of course, that improved vaccines and pills of the sort lately developed by Pfizer and Merck may eventually snuff out the pandemic, but that’s probably not a gamble most people want to take.

So what should mankind be doing; what steps are needed, by whom and with what resources? Global threats demand global responses, yet the muddle and hypocrisy over climate change warns us just how hard that is.

Maybe the sheer cost of the coronavirus becoming endemic will be enough to knock heads together. Estimates of the economic damage worldwide so far for 2020-21 stand at around $10 trillion – an astounding figure equivalent to two-thirds of the EU’s yearly GDP. Another way of looking at Covid’s cost is the additional borrowings imposed on cash-strapped governments, adding $24 trillion to the global ‘debt mountain’.

The EU’s credentials for designing and organising an international health strategy are mixed

The pandemic has hit poorer countries’ economies hardest of all, so quite apart from avoiding the deaths and lockdowns of another pandemic there are worrying implications for global stability and the security of richer nations.

Does the risk of future pandemics call for some sort of UN-backed effort comparable to its climate change mandate? Or are the limitations highlighted at the COP-26 conference in Glasgow an argument against that?

Might the European Union aspire to lead global pandemic preparedness? Neither the United States nor China can take on the role; the former because of its increasingly volatile domestic politics, the latter because of the widespread mistrust engendered by its handling of Covid-19’s origins.

The EU’s credentials for designing and organising an international health strategy are mixed. The European Commission recently launched its EU ‘Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA)’ but as discussed in a Frankly Speaking article a fortnight ago, there remain more questions than answers about its financial resources and the political clout it will wield.

The reliability of US leadership is sure to be in question so long as Donald Trump’s return to power is possible. America is nevertheless ‘the indispensable nation’ in the area of biomedical research, and it was scientists in New York who pioneered the use of mRNA molecules in vaccines against Covid-19.

Vaccine-hoarding rich countries will remain vulnerable until they share resources with poorer ones

The US has its 15 year-old BARDA Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which is better funded by the federal government than the €1 billion start-up budget for the EU’s HERA. America’s pharmaceuticals giants also account for the lion’s share of vaccines and anti-Covid medicines.

Nobody knows what sort of zoonotic coronaviruses could lie ahead. Yet more strains with unpredictable characteristics may emerge, most probably somewhere in Asia and possibly, say experts, linked to the growing number of pig farms there.

The importance of extending pandemic preparedness to poorer parts of the world is recognised by health specialists, but sadly not by richer countries’ politicians. Only 4.5% of people in low-income countries are so far vaccinated to some degree against Covid-19 – as against almost two-thirds in richer ones – so the likelihood of fresh variants is increasing, not receding.

Before Omicron, a more infectious Delta variant had already supplanted Covid-19’s original Beta strain, producing in some regions Delta-plus. The message is clear; epidemiologists’ warnings that vaccine-hoarding rich countries will remain vulnerable until they share resources with poorer ones must be heeded.

How should such an effort be orchestrated? There’s a strong case for beefing-up the WHO’s budget of only $2.5 billion a year. The IMF and the World Bank reckon that $50 billion is needed to snuff out the Covid-19 pandemic. And the World Bank and WHO are talking of a possible Global Preparedness Monitoring Board with a $10 billion yearly budget.

Whether funds on this scale can be envisaged remains to be seen. Right now, the focus is on climate change, with the need for even greater sums to be extracted from private and corporate taxpayers. One good cause may eclipse another.

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