If the next pandemic has already begun today, how would WHO recognize it?

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By Daniel R. Lucey MD, MPH, FIDSA

One year ago today the World Health Organization convened the first meeting of its emergency committee to advise on whether or not to declare the outbreak first reported in Wuhan a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC)” under the International Health Regulations.

Only the WHO director general can convene this emergency committee and only the WHO director general can decide on whether or not to declare a PHEIC. The decision of the director general must be made by this one person, whether or not the WHO emergency committee advises to declare a PHEIC, or if their advice is evenly split.  The decision was made not to declare a PHEIC last Jan. 22, nor when the emergency committee met again the following day Jan. 23, 2020.

Earlier this week the “Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response,” co-chaired by Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and The Right Honorable Helen Clark, prepared a 34-page report for the WHO Executive Board meeting taking place this week. In addition, the distinguished co-chairs presented their own remarks to this 148th WHO Executive Board on Jan. 19, 2021.

On page 17 of this report it is stated:

“The Emergency Committee established under the International Health Regulations (2005) was convened on 22 January 2020. It is not clear why the committee did not meet until the third week of January, nor is it clear why it was unable to agree on the declaration of a public health emergency of international concern when it was first convened  . . . One question is whether it would have helped if WHO had used the word pandemic earlier than it did. Although the term pandemic is neither used nor defined in the International Health Regulations (2005), its use does serve to focus attention on the gravity of a health event. It was not until 11 March that WHO used the term”.

It is to be hoped that this complete 34-page report, and future scheduled work of this Independent Panel prior to its presentation to the World Health Assembly in May 2021, will provide the needed wisdom to answer what I would propose is the most essential question for the Panel: If the next pandemic has already begun today, how would WHO recognize it and act accordingly?

Dr. Daniel Lucey

Daniel Lucey, M.D. MPH, FIDSA, FACP, is an infectious diseases physician and adjunct professor of infectious diseases at Georgetown University Medical Center, a senior scholar at the Georgetown University O’Neil Institute, Anthropology Research Associate, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and a member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America Global Health Committee.He has served as a volunteer medical responder to outbreaks that included the West Africa Ebola crisis. He has collected information on outbreaks starting in 2001 with cases of anthrax in 2001, and including smallpox vaccination 2002, SARS 2003, H5N1 Flu 2004, MERS in 2013, and Ebola in April, 2014, He has gathered, and  updated information on the spread of the coronavirus here since Jan. 6.

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