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opinion

Kim Campbell is a former prime minister of Canada.

People walk past a COVID-19 assessment centre outside a hospital in Toronto on April 4, 2022.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

With more than two years of COVID-19 planning and response efforts under our belt, a daunting amount of uncertainty remains. The rise of Omicron and its sub-variant BA.2 proved we cannot predict how the virus will evolve. Countries such as South Korea, New Zealand and others that have managed to stem the tide of COVID-19 cases and deaths since 2020 are now experiencing unprecedented spikes. National responses continue to vary unpredictably, with some countries such as Canada removing many restrictions while others, such as China, go back into lockdown.

Here in Canada, cases have fallen from record-breaking numbers over December and January, though cases and hospitalizations remain high. The future of Canada’s health care system also hangs in the balance, with a burnt-out health workforce and mounting backlog of surgeries.

While the COVID-19 response and its many knock-on effects continue to be mired in uncertainty, the response to the next deadly pathogen should not be. It’s not a matter of if the next disease outbreak with pandemic potential will emerge – a prospective virus that the World Health Organization dubs “Disease X”. It’s a matter of when. But the world has the lessons and solutions it needs to plan ahead and ensure that no outbreak becomes a global pandemic ever again.

Earlier this month, the Panel for a Global Public Health Convention proposed a bold path forward to build an accountable international system that would enable all countries to better prepare and respond together when the next virus strikes. The group’s call to action – one supported by the Club de Madrid, a forum of former presidents and prime ministers of democratic countries – makes the case for a positively incentivized system, governed at the heads-of-state level, in which compliance with agreed preparedness standards, alert protocols and response efforts is overseen by an independent monitoring and assessment body situated at arm’s length to the WHO. While more authority needs to be given to the WHO to set the standards in preparedness and response, this independent body would support WHO and add another layer of accountability to the global system.

To further instill predictability, compliance and order during a crisis, a pandemic treaty would be needed to establish as much mutual assurance as possible, as well as specific and delineated roles and responsibilities, from first alert through to response. This would include accountability for preparation; incentives for transparent and real-time reporting of health threats; timely information sharing, including of genetic sequences, specimens and samples; equitable distribution of pandemic goods such as treatments and vaccines; and assured implementation of evidence-based public-health measures at every level.

This would take aim at the ad-hoc way that countries have implemented public-health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic; measures were not always uniform even within some countries, particularly those with federal systems like Canada. While Canada’s federal and provincial governments were quicker to act than some of its neighbours, there was often a disconnect between them, especially in the early days of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Once those living in long-term care homes were vaccinated, each province took a slightly different approach to deciding who was next in line.

While national and sub-national sovereignty is vital, there is a collective interest in a shared sovereignty when faced with an existential threat such as containing a pathogen with pandemic potential. At minimum, a new pandemic treaty must ensure that countries with federated systems have internal data systems capable of rapidly collating comprehensive national data to ensure timely and transparent reporting. Once an outbreak is detected, there are only a few critical hours to report, assess and act to stop the spread of a disease.

Finally, such a treaty will require significant investment – billions of dollars are estimated to be needed to fund adequate preparedness measures in many low- and middle-income countries – though this is a trivial amount when compared with the trillions of dollars that have been needed to contain COVID-19 and its economic consequences. That is why the Panel argues that a new pandemic treaty must include a multilateral financing facility that ensures all countries can access predictable and sustainable funding as soon as it’s needed.

For decades, experts have said that countries, as well as our international system, are woefully unprepared and underfunded to effectively contain outbreaks and deal with the consequences of a global pandemic. We are now witnessing the results of global inaction. While there will always be an element of unpredictability when faced with disease outbreaks, let’s take charge of what is in our control and what we can predict for through a new pandemic treaty. There will be no excuses the next time around.

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