GENEVA -- COVID-19 has had a devastating impact around the globe, but the World Health Organization warned Monday that worse pandemics could lie ahead, urging the world to get "serious" about preparedness.
"This is a wakeup call," WHO emergencies chief Michael Ryan told reporters at a briefing marking a year since the UN agency first learned of the new virus spreading in China.
Since then, COVID-19 has killed nearly 1.8 million people around the world, out of over 80 million infected.
"This pandemic has been very severe," Ryan acknowledged.
"It has spread around the world extremely quickly and it has affected every corner of this planet, but this is not necessarily the big one."
He said that while the virus was "very transmissible, and it kills people... its current case fatality (rate) is reasonably low in comparison to other emerging diseases."
"We need to get ready for something that may even be more severe in the future."
WHO senior advisor Bruce Aylward also cautioned that while the world had made huge scientific progress to address the coronavirus crisis, including developing vaccines at record speed, it remained far from prepared to ward off future pandemics.
"We are into second and third waves of this virus and we are still not prepared to deal with and manage those," he told the briefing.
"So while we are better prepared... we are not fully prepared for this one, let alone the next one."
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus voiced hope that the COVID-19 pandemic had helped the world become more prepared to tackle future threats.
"In terms of awareness, I think we are now getting it," he said.
But he stressed that it was "time now to be really serious."
"More ambition will be necessary."
But Tedros also hailed how scientists around the world were working closely together to help bring the pandemic to an end.
He specifically mentioned the two new strains of the virus that have emerged in Britain and South Africa, which appear to be more infectious that previous strains.
"We are working with scientists in the UK and South Africa who are carrying out epidemiologic and laboratory studies, which will guide next steps," he said.
He hailed the two countries for testing and tracking the new variants.
And with more than 50 countries now imposing travel restrictions on Britain, he also warned against taking punishing measures against countries that transparently share such results.
"Only if countries are looking and testing effectively will you be able to pick up variants and adjust strategies to cope," he said.
"We must ensure that countries are not punished for transparently sharing new scientific findings."