‘Untrustworthy and ineffective’: Panel blasts governments’ covid response

Photo for The Washington Post by Bryan Anselm
A patient arrives at Hackensack Meridian Health Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen, N.J., on April 17, 2020.

A global panel of experts Wednesday blamed the World Health Organization, the U.S. government and others for serious failures in coordinating an international response to covid-19, while laying out recommendations to protect against future pandemics and reviving disputed claims about the virus’s origins.

In a 45-page editorial, the Lancet Covid-19 Commission warned that many governments proved “untrustworthy and ineffective” as the pandemic tore across the world, citing examples such as richer nations hoarding vaccine doses and refusing to fund global response efforts, and politicians such as President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro playing down the virus’s risks, even as hundreds of thousands of their citizens died of it.

“What we saw – rather than a cooperative global strategy – was basically each country on its own,” Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia University economist who chaired the commission, told reporters in a briefing convened by the respected medical journal. “National leaders deciding . . . the strategy and the fates of their countries in an incredibly haphazard way.”

As a result, the virus ripped through the world in “highly unequal” ways, the panel concluded, with severe consequences for the most vulnerable, among them children who suffered learning losses from disrupted schooling, people in low-income nations forced to wait for vaccine doses, and patients who endure continuing pain and other health problems attributed to long covid.

“Global and national decisions didn’t consider the less vocal voices of our communities – the ones who do not vote, like immigrants and refugees, or who do not have the energy to raise their concerns, like our elders. People that were too busy taking care of us, like essential workers and women that were at the front lines fighting the virus without professional equipment,” said Gabriela Cuevas Barrón, a Mexican politician and member of the Lancet commission.

The Lancet report also criticizes the WHO, saying the global health watchdog “acted too cautiously and too slowly” on several urgent matters, such as recognizing the virus was spreading through airborne transmission. The commission calls for strengthening the United Nations agency by giving it more financing and authority, and it also urges the creation of a new global health board to help the WHO make timely decisions.

In a statement, WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said the organization welcomed the commission’s recommendations and concurred with its call for more funding. But Harris warned of “several key omissions and misinterpretations,” saying the panel had wrongly characterized “the speed and scope of WHO’s actions.”

As health providers around the world brace for a third coronavirus winter, the commission contends that “globally coordinated efforts” can end the pandemic, urging a sustained approach to mass vaccinations, adoption of public health measures such as masking in some settings, social and financial support for infected people to continue isolating, and true cooperation among the world’s most influential nations.

“China, the United States, the E.U., India, the Russian Federation, and other major regional and global powers must put aside their geopolitical rivalries to work together to end this pandemic and to prepare for the next one and for other global crises,” the report concluded.

The Lancet commission report carries no legal or regulatory authority. But its recommendations, which draw on more than two years of work from more than 170 experts, represent one of the highest-profile attempts to identify lessons from covid-19 and how to better prepare for the next pandemic. U.S. efforts to conduct a bipartisan review of the pandemic response have stalled in Congress, and other independent bids have also struggled to win funding or capture widespread attention.

But the Lancet report also comes after Sachs, the panel’s chairman, publicly embraced the “lab-leak theory,” which posits that the virus may have escaped from a laboratory and could even have man-made origins, leading to backlash from scientists who warned that his advocacy for the disputed theory would cloud the panel’s work.

Government officials such as Anthony S. Fauci “are not being honest” about the virus’s origins, Sachs claimed on an August podcast with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has spread conspiracy theories about vaccines. Sachs also co-authored a May article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that argued U.S. scientists may have had a role in shaping SARS-CoV-2 and called for a probe of the pandemic’s origin through a “bipartisan congressional inquiry with full investigative powers.”

Sachs’ advocacy provoked a private, year-long fight with other commission members who say there is far more evidence that the virus has a “natural origin” and was first transmitted to humans from an animal, and who worked to reach a compromise over what the final report would say.

“Along with a couple of other commissioners, I helped lead efforts to keep the conspiracy nonsense and the whacka-doodle out of the final report,” said Peter Hotez, a virologist at the Baylor College of Medicine and a panel member. “I will be disappointed if covid origin conspiracies wind up detracting from some of the important and legitimate deficiencies in our understandings of how SARS, MERS and covid emerged.”

The commission’s report urged further investigation into both the lab-leak and natural-origins theories, faulting the National Institutes of Health for failing to provide more information about the U.S. government’s potential role in funding Chinese research into coronaviruses. “The search for origins requires unbiased, independent, transparent, and rigorous work by international teams in virology, epidemiology, bioinformatics, and other related fields,” the report concluded.

The commissioners also called for the WHO to be empowered to inspect and regulate facilities where scientists study and experiment on viruses that could spark potential pandemics. “Gain-of-function research” may result in more lethal or transmissible versions of viruses, and the commission warned that there is too little oversight over the “manipulation of dangerous pathogens.”

“Advances in biotechnology in the past two decades have made it possible to create new and highly dangerous pathogens,” the report concluded. “Even today, there is little understanding and clarity about the research on SARS-like viruses that was underway just before the COVID-19 pandemic.”

However, the report offered no new scientific information about the origin of the virus, and it did not mention two papers recently published in the journal Science that make the case the pandemic began in a market in China, not a laboratory.

Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, said she found the report’s assertions on the virus’s origins and gain-of-function research “appalling.”

“None of the relevant evidence was cited, and it’s clear why: There’s equivocation that implies an equal likelihood of natural and lab origin that is utterly inconsistent with our current scientific understanding,” Rasmussen said. “It’s hard not to think this omission is intentional to suggest that the ‘lab leak’ is more plausible than it is – as well as to advance the completely unfounded and baseless view that the pandemic resulted from so-called ‘gain of function’ research and there is a conspiracy involving both Chinese authorities and the NIH to cover it up.”

The final report comes after more than two dozen experts asserted in the Lancet in February 2020 that it was a “conspiracy theory” to consider that covid-19 leaked from a laboratory. The publication and those authors have since faced scrutiny that the statement was rushed by scientists who were trying to preempt investigations into their own research.

The Lancet report also draws on long-held tenets in international development, arguing that universal health coverage and more financial support for international health efforts would provide necessary protections against newly emerging infectious diseases.