Africa’s health experts gather in Botswana to discuss pandemic readiness

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Photo credit: AFP

In Gaborone, Botswana

African countries have been urged to prepare for pandemics to avoid being caught off guard, following the region's poor response to Covid-19.

WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus made the call at the 73rd session of the World Health Organization Regional Committee for Africa in Gaborone, Botswana, where the continent's health challenges are being discussed.

Dr Tedros urged member states to learn from Covid-19 and establish coherent mechanisms for cooperation based on solidarity and equity.

He encouraged African countries to join the Pandemic Preparedness and Response Mechanism, the first of its kind in the region, to ensure effective mechanisms to prevent, prepare for and respond to the next global health threat.

The African region has suffered from pandemics, natural disasters and conflicts, and investment in responsive and resilient health systems is crucial.

 "We need to invest in responsive and resilient health systems by 'Powering Health', which means funding the power of science, research and the development of data and digital technologies that are invaluable in developing the pandemic agreement," says Dr Tedros.

He adds: "WHO's priority is to protect health by preparing countries to mitigate health risks and respond to emergencies, so countries need to rethink equity to concretely include research and development and access to technologies."

Crucially, he said, global planning cannot be designed by those with money and influence, but must be managed and built by all member states and partners in an inclusive process.

Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus stressed the need to address serious gaps in compliance with and implementation of the International Health Regulations (IHR), an overarching legal framework that defines the rights and obligations of countries in dealing with public health events and emergencies that have the potential to cross borders.

"We need an IHR that is fit for purpose," he said.

Negotiations on the treaty are moving too slowly and may not be agreed in time for next year's World Health Assembly, he warned. However, he urged all Member States to work with urgency and resolve the most difficult and contentious issues in order to finalise the agreement by May 2024.

"I urge all member states to work with a sense of urgency, with a particular focus on resolving the most difficult and contentious issues. If we do that, there is still time to conclude the agreement by May 2024," he said.

"This is a unique opportunity that we must not miss to put in place a comprehensive agreement that addresses all the lessons learned during the pandemic, with a particular focus on equity," he said.

The region has more to gain from a strong agreement than anyone else," he said. "Continue to actively participate in the negotiations to ensure that Africa's needs and expectations are heard."

The five-day meeting, which has brought together more than 1,000 health experts, including African cabinet ministers, will see countries discuss and endorse regional policies, activities and financial plans to improve the health and well-being of people on the African continent.

The meeting will focus on a range of strategies to strengthen health systems, improve preparedness for and response to health emergencies, strengthen responses to nutrition and food insecurity crises, and address the threat of infectious and chronic diseases, among other challenges.

Dr John Kaseya, Director-General of the African Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, called for strengthened national pandemic preparedness with support from partners to ensure an effective response to protect health and livelihoods.

He stressed the need to maintain adequate regional stockpiles of pandemic health products such as vaccines, diagnostics and other essential medical supplies, while avoiding hoarding by wealthier countries.

"The next pandemic is coming," said Kaseya.

"We need to prepare for this next pandemic as other continents are preparing. We need to see how Africa can be more independent by producing its own vaccines. The second is how we can fund our pandemic preparedness, prevention and response.

He adds: "There is a need to maintain adequate regional stockpiles of pandemic health products such as vaccines, diagnostics and other necessary medical products, while avoiding hoarding of such products by wealthier countries.

On  May 5, WHO lifted the global pandemic emergency status for Covid-19, and efforts are underway to strengthen community-level pandemic preparedness capacity in the African Region.

"The agonising struggle to obtain sufficient supplies of key response items is no doubt fresh in the minds of governments and the partners who work with them. We are working with our Member States in the African Region to strengthen their capacity to respond to pandemics at the community level," said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.

She said that with more than 100 emergencies in Africa, huge efforts are needed to accelerate this and make health an attainable goal for all. At the same time, Africa faces challenges in vaccinating its population because of the difficulty in purchasing sufficient quantities of the vaccine. Less than 10 per cent of Africans are vaccinated.

In this context, the implementation of three WHO flagship programmes in the African Region - PROSE (Promoting Resilience of Systems for Emergencies), TASS (Transforming African Surveillance Systems) and SURGE (Strengthening and Utilising Response Groups for Emergencies) - is building national capacity to monitor and respond to risks across the continent.

At the global level, an intergovernmental body is negotiating and drafting an international instrument on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. A working group has also been established to amend the International Health Regulations to ensure a fit-for-purpose instrument.

"I call on all our African Member States to participate actively in these global discussions and negotiations. This will ensure that the needs of our region are adequately addressed and that we are better prepared for the next pandemic," said Dr Moeti.

Botswana's President Mokgweetsi Masisi said COVID-19 had highlighted inequalities in pandemic preparedness that must be avoided in the future.

He said the inequalities in access to vaccines, PPE and medicines during the COVID-19 pandemic were likely to remain one of the greatest failures of the international community in the 21st century.

"Diseases have no borders, pandemics are global and therefore the risks to one country inevitably affect another," said Masisi.

"We have agreed at the African Union level to prioritise the diversification of local and regional pharmaceutical production. The pandemic instrument must support regional efforts and ensure the transfer of knowledge and intellectual property, well-trained human resources and financing for the sustainability of pharmaceutical production facilities, all of which should be anchored in a well-functioning health system.

He urged developed countries to align their funding with the regional and national priorities of the countries they fund, in order to reduce conditionalities on voluntary contributions.