Helen Clark slams China's 'failures, delays and gaps in action' for letting COVID-19 turn into a pandemic

Helen Clark says the World Health Organization (WHO) should have called COVID-19 a "pandemic" far earlier than it did, but China's "failures, delays and gaps in action" are what let it become one. 

Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, co-chaired the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, which looked into the global response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which to date has claimed at least 3.3 million lives - likely more. 

Its report COVID-19: Make It the Last Pandemic, released Thursday, found a "toxic cocktail" of "poor strategic choices, unwillingness to tackle inequalities, and an uncoordinated system" led to the disease sweeping the world. 

"Although public health officials, infectious disease experts, and previous international commissions and reviews had warned of potential pandemics and urged robust preparations since the first outbreak of SARS, COVID-19 still took large parts of the world by surprise," the report concluded. "It should not have done."

Asked who was at fault on The AM Show, Clark made it clear China made a number of key mistakes early on.

"There were failures, delays and gaps in action all along the way - from the time that the doctors in Wuhan first noticed the cluster, got the samples tested, found it was a novel coronavirus, reported it to their authorities and Wuhan issues a bulletin within Wuhan on December 31.

"The very next day, the WHO asked China for more information. But the reality is it got limited case information, initially. The genome took a week to be shared after it was sequenced, and so on."

The Wuhan Institute of Virology sequenced the genome on January 2, the report found - but it wasn't uploaded for international researchers to look at until January 11. 

"It's not like medieval times where a virus is on a donkey or on foot... it's on the next plane. In Wuhan it wasn't until January 23 - 23 days after they issued their internal bulletin about this new disease - that they locked down the city. By then, zillions of people were travelling within China for lunar new year, and the disease was going across other borders as well."

She said there "were opportunities all along the way to contain it which weren't taken".

"I think that 23-day gap from Wuhan issuing a bulletin in Wuhan to locking down, that was not good at all."

Helen Clark.
Helen Clark. Photo credit: Getty Images

The WHO itself is also criticised in the report, but Clark said there's only so much it can do because it "doesn't have any powers really, it can only ask". 

"It can't demand it's given access immediately, it can't publish information when it gets it unless a country agrees to it. There's all sorts of problems there."

The WHO declared COVID-19 a 'public health emergency of international concern' at the end of January - the highest warning it can give. At the time there were just 98 cases recorded outside of China. But the WHO still recommended against international travel bans, and most governments in February did little to curb the spread of the disease so "the pandemic raced away", in Clark's words.

" Most countries did not seem to get that message," the report said. 

"The WHO finally used the 'pandemic' word on March 11, and to be fair to them it's got no status within their dictionary," said Clark. 

"But I think for us, the general public, when we hear 'pandemic' we go, '[makes shocked sound] pandemic! This is serious.' Really, the word probably should have been used earlier." 

By then, there were 118,000 cases in 114 different countries. The report says the current system for declaring a public health emergency is too slow, and should be reformed to account for "a fast-moving respiratory pathogens". 

"For a strikingly large number of countries, it was not until March 2020, after COVID-19 was characterised as a 'pandemic', and when they had already seen widespread cases locally and/or reports of growing transmission elsewhere in the world, and/or their hospitals were beginning to fill with desperately ill patients, that concerted government action was finally taken," the report said.

'Chernobyl moment'

Clark said COVID-19 should be treated as a 'Chernobyl moment', referring to the 1980s nuclear disaster which prompted greater international cooperation and oversight of the industry. 

"When Chernobyl occurred, it was the catalyst for a new treaty, for more information-sharing between countries... and the International Atomic Energy Agency got more powers. We want that equivalent for the WHO so it can do the job people expect it to." 

Without such powers, Clark says it's inevitable there will be another pandemic. 

"We've dodged a bullet really since 1918. We've had nothing like this. Obviously HIV was a very serious epidemic and is still a global public health threat, but not on the scale of this. Similarly, Ebola didn't get away like this, SARS didn't get away like this. We've been living on cloud cuckooland to be honest, and underinvesting in preparedness because it's like the dog that doesn't bark. Well, it's barked incredibly loudly now."