Global diplomatic failure made COVID 'far worse' - leading expert

He said the situation could also mean that the origins of COVID-19 are never discovered.

 Ambulances parked amid the COVID-19 pandemic outside the Royal London Hospital in London (photo credit: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE)
Ambulances parked amid the COVID-19 pandemic outside the Royal London Hospital in London
(photo credit: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE)

One of the world's leading infectious disease experts said on Thursday the collapse of global collaboration during COVID-19 made the pandemic "far worse" and continues to put the world at greater pandemic risk than at any point in his working life.

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust who quit as a UK government adviser in November, has previously bemoaned failures in international cooperation on COVID-19 but his new remarks amount to his strongest criticism yet of world leaders.

"This pandemic has been made worse, in my view by catastrophic failure of global diplomacy," Farrar told an online briefing. "I think it bedeviled the start of the pandemic, frankly...There’s no doubt in my mind that the geopolitics of 2020 made this pandemic far worse than it needed to be."

He said the situation could also mean that the origins of COVID-19 are never discovered.

Where, when and how the virus originated remains one of the central mysteries of COVID-19, which has killed more than six million people worldwide. The United States and other countries have criticized China for delaying sharing information when the virus emerged there in 2019.

 CHINESE SECURITY PERSONNEL keep watch outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology during a visit last year by a  World Health Organization team tasked with investigating the origins of COVID-19. (credit: THOMAS PETER/REUTERS) CHINESE SECURITY PERSONNEL keep watch outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology during a visit last year by a World Health Organization team tasked with investigating the origins of COVID-19. (credit: THOMAS PETER/REUTERS)

In December, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Beijing had still not disclosed some early data that might help pinpoint the origins and called for a second phase of an investigation into it.

On Thursday, Farrar reiterated his position that the “overwhelming majority” of evidence points towards natural origins, although he said a lab leak still cannot be ruled out.

Without international cooperation, finding out more may be impossible, alongside establishing which other animal viruses might pose a risk to humanity.

"I believe we shut that door in January and February of 2020, and as a result, I’m afraid we’re at greater risk today than we have been probably throughout my professional career,” he said.

“I think we are now very, very vulnerable to further events, further animal viruses coming across, because we have no international cooperation going on, in terms of identifying animal viruses that would be a threat to humanity.”

Farrar also argued that the world is attempting to move on from COVID-19 too fast, particularly considering the low levels of vaccination coverage in some countries.

One week after England ditched all COVID restrictions, he said that he would have advised a more cautious reopening if he were still working with the government. "My worry is we're going to try and move on too quickly.”

Earlier, the WHO's European head, Hans Kluge, suggested in a briefing to reporters that the region could be moving towards “a kind of pandemic endgame”, although he also warned that “the pandemic is far from over”.