World unprepared for another pandemic, capacity building underway: WHO chief at WEF

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The world remains unprepared to tackle another pandemic, the head of the UN health agency said during a summit in Riyadh on Sunday. However, capacity building based on lessons learned is underway on a global scale.

Speaking at a World Economic Forum (WEF) panel in Saudi Arabia, the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus said: “We are unprepared, and we’re still vulnerable to the same problem,” referring to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 that brought the world to a standstill.

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An agreement that will help establish a structure for pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response has been in the works since 2021.

The WHO chief said he was hopeful the deal would sail through next month, following multiple rounds of negotiations.

“[It] will help us prepare better and prevent the same thing like COVID from happening,” he said.

On a global level, Ghebreyesus said there was an increase in intergovernmental collaborations—surveillance through collaborative intelligence, a mechanism to share pathogens for research, aiding countries with capabilities to move into the production of medical goods, and the creation of a pandemic fund run by the World Bank.

“The key is to have a binding pandemic agreement that member states will respect. So, if anything happens, the best is to prevent it,” the WHO chief said, adding: “And that’s why we are building capacity.”

Polio eradication

On a separate note, the UN official added that the eradication of polio was on its “last lap.”

“We’re within the last lap. Of course, the last mile is the hardest, but that’s when we need to really put all our energy to cross the finish line,” he added.

Following the keynote, Saudi Arabia and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced they had joined forces to eradicate the infectious disease by protecting 370 million children annually and lifting millions more from poverty across 33 Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) member countries.

Polio, a disease that mainly affects children aged under five years, can lead to paralysis and even death.

Advisor to the Royal Court and Supervisor General of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSrelief), Dr Abdullah al-Rabeeah, and Saudi Arabia’s minister of health, Fahad bin Abdurrahman al-Jalajel, announced a fund exceeding $620 million at the Riyadh meeting in the presence of the WHO Director-General and Bill Gates.

Since Africa became wild polio-free in 2020, Pakistan and Afghanistan remain the only two endemic countries that remain. With assistance from the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, cases have dwindled from more than 300 in 2014 to just 12 in 2023. However, Malawi, Mozambique, and Sudan have reported imported cases since last year.

Ghebreyesus also noted that the world was off track with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure peace and stability by 2030.

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