Call for action on pandemic planning as COVID cases soar

As fears grow over the rapid spread of a new COVID variant, UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office minister Andrew Mitchell has told a meeting of global experts the world has to better prepare for the next pandemic.

Speaking at the UN Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response High-level Meeting, Mitchell described the COVID pandemic as “the biggest challenge of our lifetime”.

His comments came as reported cases of Covid in the UK surged in August to an average of over 1,400 new cases per day, from a figure of 273 at the start of July.

The BA.2.86 strain  which has been named the Pirola variant is expected to become the dominant strain in the country. Indeed scientists have warned that as the country heads into the colder weather infections levels threaten to rise to those seen at the peak of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021.

Professor Stephen Griffin has described the strain a “forbearer” of future chaotic strains, and there was evidence that the virus shows “no signs of stopping”.

Speaking to the UN Mitchell said there were lesson to learn from the way the world responded to COVID.

“The international response was punctuated with many high points of cooperation, and some low points of isolationism. We need to do better so that we are prepared for the next crisis,” he said. “That means two things.

“First, we must provide help to lower and middle income countries so they’re better able to withstand health threats.

“The UK is committed to doing what it can to help strengthen health systems — they are the bedrock of effective pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. To boost collaboration on research and development, including clinical trials and data sharing.

“To help to improve coordination across the human, animal and environmental health sectors. And to work with partners to ensure that safe and effective vaccines, medicines and tests are available during pandemics to all who need them, when they need them.”

He revealed the UK is providing £370 million to strengthen global health security.

“This will help tackle deadly diseases in Africa, expand the UK Vaccine Network programme, and establish research and technical partnerships in Africa and the Indo-Pacific,” he explained.

Mitchell continued: “We must improve multilateral co-operation. Central to this are the negotiations in Geneva on a new Pandemic Accord and agreeing measures to improve pandemic prevention, preparedness and response whilst respecting national sovereignty.

“We must also reform the international financial institutions to release more finance to lower- and middle-income countries — an agenda the UK is championing. And it means investing in the Pandemic Fund and other funds to strengthen preparedness. As well as ensuring that when the next pandemic strikes, faster funding is available.”

He concluded: “We face an important moment. We must reflect on the lessons learnt from Covid and work together to protect future generations from the catastrophic impacts of pandemics. They will rightly not forgive us should we fail.”