MANILA — The novel coronavirus has infected over 26 million people and caused the deaths of more than 870,000 globally. As the world continues to grapple with COVID-19 and its impacts, a group of experts is coming together to help address some of the lingering questions about the pandemic and the global response.
The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, set up following a request from the World Health Assembly in May for an independent review of the response to COVID-19, will be holding its first meeting on Sept. 17, said former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at a media briefing Thursday.
Devex Senior Reporter Jenny Lei Ravelo speaks with global health experts Carolyn Reynolds and Jorge Saavedra for insight into WHO's independent panel review of the global COVID-19 response.
Clark and Sirleaf are co-chairs of the panel, which was initiated by World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in early July. During a member state briefing in August, the co-chairs announced the appointment of Anders Nordström, Sweden's global health ambassador, as head of the panel’s secretariat.
The panel is given the huge task of reviewing a response to an ongoing pandemic within a limited time frame. It is expected to submit its report to the 74th World Health Assembly in May 2021. Health experts have underscored the need for the panel to ensure independence from not just WHO but also from its member states, an issue the co-chairs said they recognize.
“The independent panel takes the term ‘impartial and independent’ as its mandate very seriously. Panelists are expected to draw from their considerable expertise and experiences. They do not represent their institutions or governments,” Sirleaf said.
The panel has yet to clearly lay out its plans, its scope, and the process for conducting the review, but these issues are expected to soon gain clarity now that the co-chairs have announced all the members of the panel. At the media briefing, Clark and Sirleaf also shared some of the broad themes or questions that the panel may tackle in the review.
Here’s what is known so far about the panel and its work:
What’s expected of the panel?
Member states want a “stepwise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” that would review the experience and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19.
Some of the issues that member states identified in the resolution adopted at the 73rd WHA in May include “the effectiveness of the mechanisms at WHO’s disposal”; the functioning of the International Health Regulations and extent to which recommendations of previous IHR reviews have been implemented; and WHO’s actions, COVID-19 timeline, and contributions to United Nations-wide efforts.
The resolution also requested recommendations to improve the pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response capacity of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme.
Who are the panel members?
Apart from the co-chairs, the panel is composed of activists, former government officials, heads of international organizations, economists, and health experts.
These include Dr. Joanne Liu, who was international president of Médecins Sans Frontières during the 2014- 2016 Ebola crisis in West Africa and for part of the Ebola outbreak in the eastern Congo; Precious Matsoso, the former director-general of health of South Africa who chaired the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee for the WHO Health Emergencies Programme in 2017; and Zhong Nanshan, also known as China’s “SARS hero” — a reference to severe acute respiratory syndrome — who led the COVID-19 response in that country.
“We can ask ... how WHO and national governments might have worked differently, knowing what we know now about the disease.”— Helen Clark, co-chair, Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response
Others are Mauricio Cárdenas, former finance minister of Colombia; Aya Chebbi, African Union special envoy on youth; Mark Dybul, former head of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and of the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief; Michel Kazatchkine, also former head of The Global Fund; David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee; Thoraya Obaid, former executive director of the United Nations Population Fund; Preeti Sudan, former secretary of health of India; and Ernesto Zedillo, former president of Mexico, whom some have raised concerns over.
The panelists, selected from a pool of more than 120 candidates, were chosen based on expertise; knowledge of the international system, including WHO; and experience with similar international processes, according to a news release. Member states were invited to nominate candidates to the panel, although the co-chairs reiterated that they selected the panel members themselves.
“We gave the director-general the courtesy of knowing our intentions, but he did not endeavor to persuade us in any way that we should not proceed with the choice that we have made,” Clark said.
What will be the scope of the review?
It is still not clear what the scope and limitations of the review will be, but Clark said the panel will consider “a series of bold themes,” including questions of when and how the pandemic emerged and why the world was caught off guard despite years of warnings about a potential health crisis.
The panel also intends to learn more about ongoing efforts to contain virus transmission, the pandemic’s impact on people’s health and health systems, the experience of those on the front lines, and collaboration.
“The places which have done well in that respect, we'll ask what evidence and decisions made the difference for them. In places that have suffered greatly, we would like to know what decisions people would like to have made but couldn’t,” Clark said. “For decision-makers, we may ask what kept them awake at night and what actions made them sleep a little better.”
Clark also talked about the importance of communication and the issue of an “infodemic,” which has added to the challenges of responding to COVID-19.
“We can ask, too, with the benefit of hindsight — which is always a wonderful thing — how WHO and national governments might have worked differently, knowing what we know now about the disease. Are there lessons to be learned in order not to repeat the experiences of this pandemic?” she said.
The former prime minister, who also previously headed the United Nations Development Programme, said the panel will look for feedback from a broad range of stakeholders — not just WHO and member states, but also health experts, economists, social impact specialists, civil society, the private sector, and the larger public.
“We wish to find ways to hear from the general public at large. We will decide how best to gather information and to consult widely when we meet in the panel for the first time,” she said.
What happens next?
The panel will first convene on Sept. 17, with the goal of meeting about every six weeks until April 2021. The co-chairs will present a briefing to WHO’s executive board at a special session in October, to the resumed 73rd World Health Assembly in November, and to the executive board’s regular session in January 2021. The panel’s report is expected to be submitted to the 74th World Health Assembly in May 2021.
Update, Sept. 7, 2020: This article has been updated to reflect that concerns have been raised over the inclusion of Zedillo on the panel.