World must prepare for disease more deadly than Covid, WHO chief warns

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has urged nation states to prepare for the next emergency  (AP)
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has urged nation states to prepare for the next emergency (AP)

The head of the World Health Organisation warned on Tuesday that governments need to prepare for a disease even deadlier than Covid-19.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of WHO, told its annual health assembly in Geneva that it was time to advance negotiations on preventing the next pandemic.

He warned that nation states cannot “kick this can down the road” and that the next global disease was bound to “come knocking”.

Dr Tedros 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?”

He added: “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.”

The 10-day annual World Health Assembly in the Swiss city, which coincides with the body’s 75th anniversary, is set to address global health challenges including future pandemics.

The WHO’s 194 member states are currently negotiating reforms to the binding rules that fix their obligations in the event of an international health threat.

They are also drafting a broader pandemic treaty which is up for ratification next year.

“A commitment from this generation [to a pandemic accord] is important, because it is this generation that experienced how awful a small virus could be,” said Dr Tedros.

The warning comes just weeks after the health agency said that Covid-19 was no longer a global emergency. WHO said countries should now manage the virus that killed more than 6.9 million people.

“It is therefore with great hope that I declare Covid-19 over as a global health emergency,” said Dr Tedros earlier this month, adding that the end of the emergency did not mean Covid was over as a global health threat.

The Covid death rate has slowed from a peak of more than 100,000 people per week in January 2021 to just over 3,500 in the week to 24 April, 2023, according to WHO data.

This reflects widespread vaccination, availability of better treatments and a level of population immunity from prior infections.

Michael Ryan, emergencies director at WHO, said:“The battle is not over. We still have weaknesses and those weaknesses that we still have in our system will be exposed by this virus or another virus. And it needs to be fixed.”

The WHO’s declaration comes just four months after China ended its prolonged severe Covid restrictions and was hit by a big surge in infections.

Additional reporting by agencies