WHO Should Have More Say in Pandemics 05/12 06:12
GENEVA (AP) -- A panel of independent experts who reviewed the World Health
Organization's response to the coronavirus pandemic says the U.N. health agency
should be granted "guaranteed rights of access" in countries to investigate
emerging outbreaks, a contentious idea that would give it more powers and
require member states to give up some of theirs.
In a report released Wednesday, the panel faulted countries worldwide for
their sluggish response to COVID-19, saying most waited to see how the virus
was spreading until it was too late to contain it, leading to catastrophic
results. The group also slammed the lack of global leadership and restrictive
international health laws that "hindered" WHO's response to the pandemic.
Some experts criticized the panel for failing to hold WHO and others
accountable for their actions during COVID-19, describing that as "an
abdication of responsibility."
Lawrence Gostin of Georgetown University said the panel "fails to call out
bad actors like China, perpetuating the dysfunctional WHO tradition of
diplomacy over frankness, transparency and accountability."
The panel was led by former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and
former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who were tapped by WHO last year
to examine the U.N. agency's response to COVID-19 after bowing to a request
from member countries.
"The situation we find ourselves in today could have been prevented,"
Johnson Sirleaf said.
Beyond the call to boost WHO's ability to investigate outbreaks, the panel
made an array of recommendations, such as urging the health agency and the
World Trade Organization to convene a meeting of vaccine-producing countries
and manufacturers to quickly reach deals about voluntary licensing and
technology transfer, in an effort to boost the world's global supply of
The panel also suggested that WHO's director-general -- currently Tedros
Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia -- should be limited to a single seven-year
term. As it stands, the WHO chief is elected to a five-year term that can be
The suggestion to limit the tenure of WHO's top leader appeared in part
designed to ease the intense political pressure that WHO director-generals can
face. Last year, the Trump administration repeatedly inveighed against the
agency's handling of the pandemic -- taking aim at WHO's alleged collusion with
An Associated Press investigation in June found WHO repeatedly lauded China
in public while officials privately complained that Chinese officials stalled
on sharing critical epidemic information with them, including the new virus'
Clark said the global diseases surveillance system needed to be overhauled
-- with WHO's role strengthened.
"WHO should have the powers necessary to investigate outbreaks of concern,
speedily guaranteed rights of access, and with the ability to publish
information without waiting for member state approval," she said.
Sophie Harman, a professor of international politics at Queen Mary
University of London, said the panel's recommendations were unlikely to be
entirely welcomed by WHO's member countries, and thus, unlikely to be
"Which states would actually allow WHO in to investigate an outbreak without
their permission?" she asked.
Many doctors fatigued after treating COVID-19 patients said any reform of
WHO should include an evaluation of its ability to properly assess the science
of an emerging health threat.
David Tomlinson, a British physician who has been campaigning for health
workers during the pandemic in the U.K., said WHO "failed on the most
fundamental aspect" in its scientific leadership of COVID-19. He said WHO's
failure to acknowledge that much coronavirus transmission happens in the air
has "amplified the pandemic."
WHO has said coronavirus spread can happen in limited circumstances in the
air but recommended against mask-wearing for the general public until last June.
Clare Wenham, a professor of global health policy at the London School of
Economics, said the report overall was good, but questioned its support for the
U.N.-backed program for coronavirus vaccines called COVAX, which relies on a
"donation" model. Of the millions of COVID-19 vaccines administered to date,
developing countries have received just 7%, WHO said this week.
"(COVAX) is not addressing one of the main problems, which is we need to
rapidly ramp up production of the vaccines and distribution of vaccines," she
said. "And it's still working on the model of a finite number that's only able
be produced by a certain few manufacturing locations."
Overall, she suggested politicians needed to budge more than technical
institutions like WHO.
"The problems aren't technical. The problems are political. The problems are
about like: How do you get governments to behave and think about things beyond
their own borders?" Wenham said. "I don't think that has been resolved."