World leaders had the ability to avert the COVID-19 pandemic but failed to do it, a scathing WHO-commissioned report said

World leaders had the ability to avert the COVID-19 pandemic but failed to do it, a scathing WHO-commissioned report said
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on March 11, 2020.FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images
  • A proper global response could have averted the COVID-19 pandemic, a WHO-backed report found.
  • Its authors said a "fundamental transformation" was needed to prevent a future pandemic.
  • It was critical of both national leaders and WHO, which was slow to declare an emergency.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and most of its death and devastation, could have been averted by a proper global response, a panel backed by the World Health Organization said Wednesday.

The report, by The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, said the resources and know-how to control the coronavirus existed all along but world leaders failed to use them properly.

It noted that the experience of previous pandemics could have helped but was not put to proper use. The full 86-page report can be found here.

International systems and institutions "failed to protect us," concluded Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the chair of the panel and a former president of Liberia.

The world "would have avoided the catastrophe we are in today" if experts had learned from previous health crises, Johnson Sirleaf said.


The report is critical of WHO, saying it took too long to declare a "public-health emergency of international concern," a decision that helped spur urgent action from national governments.

For months after WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak an emergency, too many countries adopted a "wait-and-see" approach, which seemed less costly, instead of aggressively containing the virus, the report said.

The report analyzed the response from 28 countries.

It found that countries that recognized the threat of COVID-19 early did much better than those that waited.

Countries that "devalued science, denied the potential impact of the pandemic, delayed comprehensive action, and allowed distrust to undermine efforts" had the poorest results, the experts said in the report.


The panel also admonished the International Health Regulations, the only legally binding set of rules to direct how countries respond to an international crisis.

These "served to constrain rather than facilitate rapid action," the report says.

China and WHO were also criticized in the report for waiting too long to say the virus was spreading between humans in the city of Wuhan and to warn the world about human-to-human transmission, the Financial Times reported.

The report suggests "a fundamental transformation" to the system, its cochair Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand, said.

It proposes to:

  • create a new Global Health Threats Council,
  • give WHO more power to investigate threats,
  • create an International Pandemic Financing Facility, with a $5 billion to $10 billion annual budget and up to $100 billion in reserve for emergencies.

"If we do not act to change it now, it will not protect us from the next pandemic threat, which could happen at any time," Sirleaf said.