2020 was unquestionably a momentous and a tragic year. The climate crisis, natural disasters, political upheavals and human rights abuses have confronted humanity with unprecedented challenges – but nothing has impacted the whole world to the extent that COVID-19 has, and perhaps never before have we learned such a hard lesson on the need for cooperation and coordination on the part of the entire world health community.
We begin 2021 with the pandemic still ravaging populations around the globe. In the midst of this catastrophe, with the importance of testing finally acknowledged and vaccines becoming available in many countries,hope is increasing that COVID-19 can be brought under control. The past year has provided important learnings that we should take into the year ahead.
Collective determination has resulted in an unprecedented pace of scientific innovation. Antigen rapid tests for COVID-19 were ready for deployment within 8 months and vaccines in less than a year, breaking all records for the speed of development. Improved, life-saving treatments for COVID-19 were also developed.
Progress continues. There are currently more than 1000 tests for COVID-19 already commercially available or in development, and the quest to make testing simpler, faster and affordable is ongoing. But funding is still urgently needed to further simplify these tests and make them more accessible, so that widespread on-the-spot testing can be deployed to keep people safe in schools, care homes and workplaces.
In 2020, global cooperation, while not perfect, still stood out, including the formation of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator: a groundbreaking partnership of many of the world’s international health organizations and leading scientists and institutions that have rallied around the single goal of defeating the pandemic, by joining forces to share, build, and invent global solutions to ensure equitable access to tests, treatments and vaccines.
Though it felt as if we were taken unawares, for many organizations in global health, the potential threat of a global pandemic was well known, and its arrival was just a matter of time. Despite WHO and others laying the groundwork for global pandemic response, sustained lack of political prioritization and funding has exposed critical health systems weaknesses in many countries, including high-income nations.
This lack of preparedness has also been highlighted by other areas of health that have seen severe setbacks after decades of hard-won steady progress – such as HIV, malaria and TB, as well as other neglected diseases– for reasons including the sudden redirection of resources towards COVID-19 measures.We have learned that it takes time, planning, the building of trust and the bringing together of resources and rapidly acquired new scientific knowledge to manage a pandemic.
( The author is Chairman, Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics)