China, WHO should have acted quicker to stop pandemic: Panel
The bottom line is WHO has no powers to enforce anything
GENEVA, JANUARY 19
A panel of experts commissioned by the World Health Organisation has criticised China and other countries for not moving to stem the initial outbreak of the coronavirus earlier and questioned whether the UN health agency should have labelled it a pandemic sooner.
In a report issued to the media yesterday, the panel led by former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark said there were “lost opportunities” to set up basic public health measures as early as possible.
“What is clear to the panel is that public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China in January,” it said.
China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying disputed whether China had reacted too slowly.
“As the first country to sound the global alarm against the epidemic, China made immediate and decisive decisions,” she said, pointing out that Wuhan — where the first human cases were identified — was locked down within three weeks of the outbreak starting.
“All countries, not only China, but also the US, the UK, Japan or any other countries, should all try to do better,” Hua said.
At a press briefing today, Johnson Sirleaf said it was up to countries whether they wanted to overhaul WHO to accord it more authority to stamp out outbreaks, saying the organisation was also constrained by its lack of funding.
“The bottom line is WHO has no powers to enforce anything,” she said. “All it can do is ask to be invited in.”
Last week, an international team of WHO-led scientists arrived in Wuhan to research the animal origins of the pandemic after months of political wrangling to secure China’s approval for the probe.
The panel also cited evidence of cases in other countries in late January, saying public health containment measures should have been put in place immediately in any country with a likely case, adding: “They were not.”
The experts also wondered why WHO did not declare a global public health emergency — its highest warning for outbreaks — sooner. The UN health agency convened its emergency committee on January 22, but did not characterise the emerging pandemic as an international emergency until a week later.
“One more question is whether it would have helped if WHO used the word pandemic earlier than it did,” the panel said.
WHO did not describe the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic until March 11, weeks after the virus had begun causing explosive outbreaks in numerous continents, meeting WHO’s own definition for a flu pandemic.
As the coronavirus began spreading across the globe, WHO’s top experts disputed how infectious the virus was, saying it was not as contagious as flu and that people without symptoms only rarely spread the virus. Scientists have since concluded that COVID-19 transmits even quicker than the flu and that a significant proportion of spread is from people who don’t appear to be sick.
Over the past year, WHO has come under heavy criticism for its handling of the response to COVID-19. US President Donald Trump slammed the UN health agency for “colluding” with China to cover up the extent of the initial outbreak before halting US funding for WHO and pulling the country out of the organisation.
To date, the pandemic has killed more than two million people worldwide.