The WHO was too slow to react to the Covid-19 pandemic, panel finds

The WHO was too slow to react to the Covid-19 pandemic and is a powerless body unable to ‘enforce anything’, independent panel finds

  • Report is from Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response
  • The UN body’s failing could be attributed to the weak position, the report said
  • While the WHO’s response was slow, this was due to lack of funding, report said
  • The panel also said yesterday China ‘could have acted more quickly’ in dealing with Covid-19, adding a ‘largely hidden epidemic’ helped cause global spread
  • It said there was ‘potential for early signs to have been acted on more rapidly’  
  • The WHO has been accused by Donald Trump of being biased towards China

The World Health Organisation was too slow to react to the Covid-19 pandemic and is a powerless body unable to ‘enforce anything’, an independent panel has found.

An investigation into the WHO’s pandemic response found the UN health body’s failings could largely be attributed to the weak position of the agency, with the probe’s report saying more funding and reforms were desperately needed. 

The heads of the WHO-backed Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response presented the findings to the WHO’s executive board on Tuesday. 

While the panel’s report suggested the WHO should have acted faster and more decisively at the start, former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stressed that ‘the bottom line is the WHO has no powers to enforce anything or investigate… within a country.’ 

The WHO has come under heavy criticism for its handling of the pandemic, including accusations from US President Trump that it parroted Chinese propaganda, hindering early global efforts to control the spread of the virus.

On Monday, the panel also criticised China for not acting fast enough after the virus was first discovered there, saying it was ‘clear’ that ‘public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China’ in January last year. 

A investigation into the WHO’s pandemic response found the UN health body’s failings could largely be attributed to the weak position of the agency. Pictured: Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organisation, speaking on Monday

Johnson Sirleaf, who co-chairs the panel with former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark, said ‘the world is more reliant on an effective WHO than ever before.’

But, she told reporters, the same countries that have turned to the WHO for leadership during the crisis ‘have kept it underpowered and under-resourced to do the job expected of it.’

Covid-19 was first detected in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019 before seeping beyond China’s borders to wreak global havoc, costing more than two million lives and eviscerating economies.

The WHO has faced claims it moved too slowly to declare an global crisis, to acknowledge the virus was spreading through the air, and to recommend face masks.

It has also faced criticism for not pressing China harder to provide accurate information on the initial cases and for allowing more than a year to pass before an international team of experts could enter China to help search for Covid-19’s origins.

‘When it comes to a potential new disease threat, all the WHO can do is ask and hope to be invited in,’ Johnson Sirleaf said.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the co-chair of the WHO-backed Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, said ‘the bottom line is the WHO has no powers to enforce anything or investigate… within a country’

Clark also pointed to the agency’s low level of funding and the dangers of relying so heavily on volatile voluntary contributions.

Such contributions can suddenly disappear, as seen last year when the United States, traditionally the WHO’s biggest donor, halted its backing.

‘The funding of the WHO is woeful,’ Clark said, pointing to comparisons showing the agency receives less than a single hospital in New York.

‘This is our global health organisation. We want it to do well, we need it to do well,’ she said, ‘but it has been kept on pretty short rations.’

The panel also found that the international alert system for health emergencies needed an overhaul.

It complained that it took a full month for the WHO’s emergency committee to declare the highest alert level, a Public Health Emergency of International Concern or PHEIC, and that many countries did not appear to appreciate the seriousness of the situation.

‘Pathogens can travel in minutes and hours, not in days and weeks,’ Clark said.

‘The international system for alert and response has the trappings of an analog system in the digital age.’

U.S. president Donald Trump claimed last May that ‘China has total control’ of the WHO as he announced that the US was ‘terminating’ its relationship with the organisation. Pictured: The WHO’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland

Covid-19 was first detected in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019 before seeping beyond China’s borders to wreak global havoc. Pictured: people walk along a street near a market in Wuhan, China’s central Hubei province on January 19

Yesterday, the pandemic response probe declared that China could have acted more quickly in dealing with Covid-19.

The panel said it was ‘clear’ that ‘public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China’ in January last year. 

The panel, set up last July after countries including Australia angered China by calling for an investigation, said there was ‘potential for early signs to have been acted on more rapidly’ by both China and the WHO. 

The criticism is at odds with the WHO’s public statements at the time, when it praised China for the ‘remarkable speed’ with which it responded to the outbreak.   

The criticism of both authorities comes as a team of WHO experts carries out a separate, politically sensitive mission in China to investigate the origins of the disease.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday that ‘no one should be in any doubt that this is a scientific exercise’ to understand how the virus emerged.   

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, pictured last January with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, has come under criticism from Donald Trump for his alleged closeness to China 

China’s official timeline vs new evidence

Official timeline 

Dec 8, 2019 – Earliest date that China has acknowledged an infection

Dec 31 – China first reported ‘pneumonia of unknown cause’ to the World Health Organisation

Jan 1, 2020 – Wuhan seafood market closed for disinfection

Jan 11 – China reported its first death 

Jan 23 – Wuhan locked down

Jan 31 – WHO declared ‘outbreak of international concern’ as China admitted having thousands of cases

Feb 23 – Italy reports cluster of cases in first major outbreak in the West 

New evidence 

Sep 2019– Blood samples are taken in a lung cancer screening trial in Italy which later test positive for coronavirus

Oct-Dec – Rise in ‘flu and pneumonia’ cases in northern Italy which could be linked to coronavirus  

Nov – Sewage samples taken in Florianópolis, Brazil, suggest virus was present

Nov 10 – Milanese woman has a skin biopsy, producing a sample which later shows signs of the virus  

Nov 17 – Leaked documents suggest case detected in China on this date

Dec 1 – Chinese researchers report an infection on this date in a peer-reviewed study, but it has not been acknowledged by Beijing 

Dec 18 – Sewage samples taken in Milan and Turin suggest virus was circulating in the cities 

Jan 2020 – Sewage samples from Barcelona suggest virus was in the city

The expert panel was convened last July amid growing pressure on the WHO to hold an investigation, despite Beijing’s efforts to postpone a probe until the pandemic was over. 

The panel said last month that it was working on an ‘authoritative chronology’ of how the outbreak began, amid criticism of the WHO for being too credulous towards China in the early days. 

In its latest report, the panel upbraided the WHO for failing to call an emergency committee or declare a ‘public health emergency of international concern’ until the end of January. 

‘It is not clear why the committee did not meet until the third week of January, nor is it clear why it was unable to agree on the declaration… when it was first convened,’ the report said.  

Trump claimed last May that ‘China has total control’ of the WHO as he announced that the US was ‘terminating’ its relationship with the organisation.   

Joe Biden, who takes office on Wednesday, promised during the election campaign that he would restore US ties with the WHO. 

Tedros met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping last January, when the WHO praised Beijing for its ‘seriousness’ and ‘transparency’ in the early days of the outbreak.  

The US accused the WHO of ‘parroting’ the Chinese government by claiming early on that there was little evidence of human-to-human transmission. 

‘Chinese officials ignored their reporting obligations to the World Health Organization and pressured the World Health Organization to mislead the world when the virus was first discovered by Chinese authorities,’ the White House claimed last year.  

Even as the pandemic started to spiral out of control in February, the WHO praised China for the ‘remarkable speed’ at which it isolated the virus.  

But in private, WHO officials were bemoaning the ‘minimal information’ they were getting from China, according to leaked documents. 

‘We’re currently at the stage where yes, they’re giving it to us 15 minutes before it appears on CCTV,’ a state-owned Chinese broadcaster, one WHO official said. 

A team of WHO experts arrived in Wuhan last week and were greeted by Chinese health officials wearing hazmat suits at the city’s airport 

Anger at China grew after a young doctor, Li Wenliang, was reprimanded for trying to raise the alarm about the disease – and subsequently died of it.  

The virus was first confirmed to have spread outside China in January, when a 61-year-old woman was found to be infected with it in Thailand. 

After scattered outbreaks in South Korea, Iran and Japan among others, the virus barrelled into Europe and North America with full force in March and April.   

But Italy, France, and Brazil have all found traces of the virus from before the WHO’s China office was officially alerted about the outbreak on December 31, 2019.   

The WHO’s team on the ground in China finally arrived in Wuhan last week after months of negotiations to investigate the origins of the disease. 

Tedros said today that ‘the objective is to understand how and when this new coronavirus emerged’. 

The team was expected to investigate the animal market linked to an early cluster of cases, but it is no longer thought that this was necessarily where the virus jumped from animals to humans. 

It is widely suspected that the virus originated in bats, but scientists say that it may have passed to humans via another species, possibly pangolins.  

The Trump administration has touted alternative theories, rejected by China, that the virus could have leaked out from a virology lab in Wuhan. 

Last Friday, the US state department claimed that some researchers at the institute had shown possible Covid-19 symptoms weeks before the outbreak came to light.  

China, for its part, has promoted the idea that the virus might not have originated within its borders at all but arrived on contaminated seafood from elsewhere.        

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