NEW YORK - The head of the World Health Organization said Friday that with a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon, nations must start investing and preparing for the next pandemic.
"Despite years of warnings, many countries were simply not ready for COVID-19," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a special session of the U.N. General Assembly on the coronavirus. "Many mistakenly assumed their strong health systems would protect them."
He said countries that have dealt with recent coronaviruses, including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) as well as other infectious diseases, have done better in containing COVID-19.
"Now all countries must develop that same muscle memory and invest in the measures that will prevent, control and mitigate the next crisis," Tedros said. "It is also clear the global system for preparedness needs attention."
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The WHO has come in for criticism from some countries for its handling of the pandemic after China reported the first cases early this year. U. S. President Donald Trump has been one of the most vocal critics, and on May 29 announced the United States would withdraw from the global health organization. President-elect Joe Biden has said he will reverse that decision when he takes office in January.
The WHO chief stressed the need for rich and poor countries alike to have equal access to a COVID-19 vaccine, saying sharing science is not charity, but in the best interest of every nation. He also urged nations to radically rethink how they prioritize and view health if they want to avoid another crisis on this scale.
"The pandemic has proven that a health crisis is not just a health crisis, it's a social, economic, political and humanitarian crisis," he said. "The risks of under investment in health have wide-ranging impacts, and so do the benefits of investing in health."
He said all roads should lead to universal health coverage with a strong foundation of primary healthcare.
Global COVID-19 confirmed cases have surpassed 65 million with more than 1.5 million deaths. The U.S. continues to have the highest number of confirmed cases - more than 14 million so far -- and 276,513 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Biden said in an interview Thursday that he will ask Americans to wear masks for 100 days when he assumes office on January 20, in order to reduce infections.
California Governor Gavin Newsom says his state is on the verge of imposing stay-at-home orders. He says he will do so once hospital intensive care units in the state's five regions reach more than 85% capacity, which is expected soon.
In South Korea, a spike in COVID-19 cases has public health officials urging people to move Christmas and New Year's festivities from in-person to online.
South Korea reported 629 new coronavirus cases Friday, a nine-month high in a country that for months has been a model of virus containment. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said 463 of the new infections were from Seoul and its surrounding areas.
Italy's prime minister signed an order Thursday limiting travel within the country during the Christmas holiday period until January 6. Allowances will be made for work as well as health and emergency reasons.
Italy recorded 23,255 new COVID-19 cases Thursday and 933 deaths.