The head of the World Health Organization urged countries across the globe to prepare for the next pandemic, warning that future health emergencies could be even worse than the COVID-19 pandemic.
WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’s warning comes weeks after the group officially ended the COVID global health emergency. During a meeting of the World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, Tedros said COVID is still a threat — but not the only one we may have to confront.
“The threat of another variant emerging that causes new surges of disease and death remains, and the threat of another pathogen emerging with even deadlier potential remains,” he said.
More than 6.9 million people globally have died of COVID, according to a WHO tally. Tedros noted that the COVID pandemic showed “basically everyone on the planet” needs to be better protected.
“We cannot kick this can down the road,” he said. “If we do not make the changes that must be made, then who will? And if we do not make them now, then when? When the next pandemic comes knocking — and it will — we must be ready to answer decisively, collectively and equitably.”
The 194 WHO member states are working on a global pandemic accord, with negotiations set to continue over the next year. Tedros said it’s an important initiative to keep the world safer.
“And for enhanced international cooperation, the pandemic accord — a generational commitment that we will not go back to the old cycle of panic and neglect that left our world vulnerable, but move forward with a shared commitment to meet shared threats with a shared response,” he said.
Since 2009, American scientists have discovered more than 900 new viruses, “60 Minutes” reported last year. One potential threat comes from the human encroachment on natural bat habitats. Experts warn that such encounters increase the risk of pathogen transmission from bats to humans, potentially sparking future pandemics.
More than 1 billion people are at risk because of a “battle” between the global economic system and nature, Ryan McNeill, a deputy editor of data journalism at Reuters, told CBS News. He is one of the authors of a recent series exploring hot spots around the world. In West Africa, 1 in 5 people lives in a high-risk “jump zone,” which Reuters describes as areas with the greatest likelihood of viruses jumping from bats to humans. Parts of Southeast Asia are also areas of concern. In South America, deforestation has created more high-risk areas than anywhere else in the world, McNeill said.
“Scientists’ fear about that region what we don’t know, and that the next pandemic could emerge there,” he said.
The WHO has urged a focus on researching a handful of specific infectious diseases. The organization notes these pathogens, including Ebola, Marburg, Lassa fever, Nipah and Zika viruses, pose the greatest public health because of their epidemic potential.