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Labor announces plan for new pandemic planning agency

The United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has long been regarded as the gold standard in public health, but was unable to stem the spread of COVID-19 in the country. The Turnbull government rejected calls for an equivalent organisation from the Australian Medical Association in 2017, with then-chief medical officer Brendan Murphy saying existing co-ordination mechanisms were enough.

One of the nation’s most experienced public servants said Dr Chalmers’ points on medical stockpiles and drills were important, but said policymakers in general should devote more money to researching potential pathogens that could cause pandemics in future.

“There’s no market in them”, so the private sector was not creating treatments, said Jane Halton, who has headed the departments of health and finance and is now a member of the National Coronavirus Co-ordination Commission.

Ms Halton also made the case for any COVID-19 vaccine to go to the most vulnerable globally rather than being reserved for the citizens of rich countries whose governments could afford to lock in contracts with manufacturers.

“If you vaccinate wealthy countries first, you will cut deaths by a third,” Ms Halton said. “If you vaccinate the vulnerable, you cut deaths by two-thirds.”

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Countries with financial muscle, including Australia, have signed deals with manufacturers and research institutions to supply vaccine candidates they are developing, if they turn out to be safe and effective.

That could result in poorer countries, some of which have large numbers of coronavirus cases, missing out, which prompted a coalition of international organisations including the World Health Organisation to create an initiative called COVAX. That body, of which Ms Halton is co-chair, works as a global buying group, pooling global money to invest in vaccines and distribute them to those most in need.

Australia has reallocated $80 million out of its aid budget to the initiative.

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