22:17 GMT16 January 2021
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    Following the Trump Administration's threats to stop funding the World Health Organisation (WHO) and push to develop therapeutics and future vaccines for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic outside of international bodies, concerns on the disjointed, national-level response to the virus have been voiced by leading figures in the global community.

    Sputnik spoke to Dr Sweta Chakraborty, risk and behavioural scientist and Atlantic Council Millennium Leadership fellow, on the US response to COVID-19 and the need for a rational and unified global response to tackle the pandemic.

    Dr Chakraborty is an alumnus of Carnegie Mellon University and King's College London, and hosts numerous podcasts with The Center for Climate and Security and The Council On Strategic Risks. She is also the US representative for the Swedish climate change startup "We Don't Have Time".

    Sputnik: US president Donald Trump recently threatened to permanently freeze funding to the WHO and withdraw membership. What are the potential consequences for doing so, namely for the US?

    Dr Sweta Chakraborty: The current Trump administration’s freezing of funding to the WHO follows a consistent pattern of isolationism: a destructive foreign affairs policy that is nonsensical in the modern world.

    Climate change and its ripple effects, such as more frequent infectious disease outbreaks, have made it abundantly clear that nation-state borders are arbitrary.

    COVID-19 does not respect country divides, and therefore international governance structures are more critical than ever, despite being imperfect and requiring scrutiny, to ensure a collaborative, coordinated response to major global risks.

    Trump withdrawing from the Paris Accords, freezing funding to the WHO and other issues sends a clear signal that America’s leadership does not comprehend our collective, connected global risk landscape. It weakens America’s position as a leader in environmental and health stewardship. This in turn will weaken the appeal of the US for attracting talent and investment, something that cannot be afforded by the US or the world given the magnitude of the challenges ahead of us.

    Sputnik: The WHO issued a joint statement in late April from over 130 doctors and organisations pledging to share and coordinate efforts on a future COVID-19 vaccine at a global level. Why is international collaboration vital and what are the risks associated with a fragmented pandemic response at the national level?

    Dr Sweta Chakraborty: Regulation of chemical molecular entities, in this case, vaccines, is and must continue to be a global, collaborative effort.

    The International Council for Harmonisation of Technical Requirements for Pharmaceuticals for Human Use (ICH) was established in 1990 to “achieve greater harmonisation worldwide to ensure that safe, effective and high quality medicines are developed, and registered and maintained in the most resource efficient manner whilst meeting high standards,” according to its website.

    Harmonisation across countries for regulated therapeutics is critical in our hyper-connected world. It became evident that having drugs approved on different timelines and across different standards was detrimental to drug access and availability.

    When a vaccine emerges for COVID-19, international coordination will be vital in incentivizing development to mass scale and prioritizing distribution to those most vulnerable. Without collaboration, a vaccine in research and development will never reach market viability and make it to those most in need.

    Sputnik: A recent report from the Committee to Abolish Nuclear Weapons found that US spending on nuclear weapons amounted to half of all global nuclear defence spending in 2019 ($38bn). How could the US have used the money spent on defences to better prepare for pandemic responses?

    Dr Sweta Chakraborty: Increasing emerging and persistent infectious disease are one of many consequences stemming from the planet warming. Climate change and its many ripple effects are considered a high priority national security threat to the US by many independent, non-partisan institutes including The Center of Climate and Security, where I host “The Climate and Security” podcast.

    The most recent podcast mini-series highlighted the relationship between climate and nuclear risk, where a warming planet is amplifying vulnerabilities in global nuclear infrastructure. It’s critical for the US national security enterprise to prioritize climate change as a national security threat to better allocate funding to the reality of the risks we face.

    It’s also critical to recognize climate change’s role as a “threat multiplier” making existing risks more frequent and intense, like pandemics. This re-prioritization will allow reallocation of funding to where it is needed: proactive preparedness for the many impacts of climate change.

    Sputnik: You mentioned in an interview the importance of mental health funding amid efforts to tackle the crisis. Why is mental health a top priority for frontline workers as well as people dealing with the ongoing crisis?

    Dr Sweta Chakraborty: Mental health has been historically overlooked as a critical component to overall physical well being. It is increasingly evident that the widespread exclusion of mental health services from US healthcare plans are deleterious to Americans.

    Suicides in the US are on the rise, and risk factors like loneliness, depression, and anxiety, enhanced through severe social distancing measures, can contribute to self-harm.

    We must as a nation reflect on why we are placing more value on the lives lost through primary impacts of COVID-19 versus those through secondary or tertiary impacts of COVID-19, like suicides.

    We are willing to lockdown to prevent COVID-19 deaths, which rationally means we should also be willing to spend on preventing adverse mental health outcomes. One thing we know from behavioral science is that humans, and policies, are rarely rational.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.


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    Donald Trump, World Health Organisation, US, vaccines, pharmaceuticals, SARS coronavirus, coronavirus, COVID-19
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