(NEW YORK) — The world was “woefully” unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic, and remains vulnerable to the next major “catastrophic” health crisis, a panel created by the World Health Organization concluded.

“COVID-19 is the 21st century’s Chernobyl moment — not because a disease outbreak is like a nuclear accident, but because it has shown so clearly the gravity of the threat to our health and well-being,” experts from the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response wrote in a report, entitled “COVID-19: Make it the Last Pandemic,” released on Wednesday.

The panel, which is led by former New Zealand Prime Minister and UNDP chief Helen Clark and former Liberian President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, urged immediate action to avert the next pandemic, or else “we will condemn the world to successive catastrophes.”

“It has caused a crisis so deep and wide that presidents, prime ministers and heads of international and regional bodies must now urgently accept their responsibility to transform the way in which the world prepares for and responds to global health threats,” the panel said. “If not now, then when?”

The panel’s extensive investigation revealed “failures and gaps” in governments’ international and national responses, which ultimately failed to protect the public.

“Current institutions, public and private, failed to protect people from a devastating pandemic. Without change, they will not prevent a future one,” the group said.

Experts wrote they remain “deeply concerned” and “alarmed” about the persistently high and widespread levels of COVID-19 transmission across the globe, particularly given the possible emergence of new variants that could continue to “impose an intolerable burden on societies.”

“People are grieving the loss of their loved ones, and those with long-term health impacts from the disease continue to suffer,” the panel wrote. “It does not have to be this way.”

The panel called for immediate investment in pandemic preparedness measures, an improvement of surveillance systems, widespread plans to produce vaccines, diagnostics, therapeutics and supplies, and access to pandemic-related financial support.

With more than 5.7 billion people in the world over the age of 16, the panel stressed the critical need to support global vaccine access and equity, asserting that “this is not some aspiration for tomorrow — it is urgent, now.”

“Ending this pandemic as quickly as possible goes hand in hand with preparing to avert another one,” they wrote.

“As soon as a health threat or deadly outbreak fades from memory, complacency takes over in what has been dubbed a cycle of panic and neglect. This cycle must end.”

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