The head of the World Health Organization warned on Tuesday that governments must prepare for a disease even deadlier than Covid-19.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, told his annual health assembly in Geneva that it was time to advance negotiations to prevent the next pandemic.
He warned that nation states cannot “kick this can down the road” and that the next global disease has to “come knocking”.
Dr. Tedros said: “If we don’t make the changes that need to be made, who will? And if we don’t make them now, when?”
He added: “The threat of another variant emerging, causing new increases in 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, will address global health challenges, including future pandemics.
The WHO’s 194 member states are currently negotiating reforms to the binding rules that set out their obligations in the event of an international health threat.
They are also drafting a broader pandemic treaty to be ratified next year.
“A commitment from this generation [to a pandemic accord] is important because it is this generation that experienced how terrible a small virus could be,” said Dr. Tedros.
The warning comes just weeks after the Norwegian Health Authority said that Covid-19 was no longer a global emergency. The WHO said countries must now deal with the virus that has 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 that Covid was over as a global health threat.
The Covid death rate has fallen from a peak of more than 100,000 people a week in January 2021 to just over 3,500 in the week to April 24, 2023, according to WHO data.
This reflects widespread vaccination, availability of better treatments and a level of population immunity to previous infections.
Michael Ryan, emergencies director at the WHO, said: “The fight is not over. We still have weaknesses, and the weaknesses that we still have in our system will be exposed by this virus or another virus. And that needs to be fixed.”
The WHO’s statement comes just four months after China ended its long-standing severe Covid restrictions and was hit by a large increase in infections.
Additional reporting from agencies