Panel ponders if UN health agency can stop future pandemics
GENEVA (AP) — An independent panel examining the World Health Organization's handling of the response to COVID-19 says it’s considering whether the U.N. health agency has enough power and financing to stop future pandemics.
Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, who co-chairs the panel, said the group was especially interested in establishing an accurate chronology of the very first coronavirus alerts and what responses were taken.
“The Independent Panel will do its best to shed light on what has happened, is still happening and why,” Clark said Tuesday as WHO held its annual meeting — this year virtually due to the pandemic. “We are asking whether WHO has the right mandate, the right powers, the right capacities and the right financing to deliver on pandemic preparedness and response.”
Critics, including U.S. President Donald Trump, have slammed WHO for allegedly “colluding” with China to hide the extent of the initial coronavirus outbreak. Earlier this year, The Associated Press reported that senior Chinese officials didn't warn the public about the pandemic threat of coronavirus for six days and that they stalled on sharing the virus' genetic sequence and other key data with WHO experts.
In recent months, a long-planned WHO-led team seeking to investigate the coronavirus' animal origins in China has stalled. Although pandemic travel restrictions and the focus on stemming the overwhelming number of new coronavirus cases have complicated matters, some scientists worry that China has still not provided key details about what research is already ongoing.
Clark said the panel would also review "how well the World Health Organization and the international system at large have been able to deliver on country needs and expectations.”
On Monday, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus pleaded for more funds, saying the agency's budget was the equivalent of what the world spends on tobacco every day.
Clark has publicly shied away from criticizing WHO or member states like China for their COVID-19 efforts.
Last month, Germany and France led a call from European Union countries arguing that WHO should have more powers to independently investigate outbreaks in countries and that their funding should be boosted.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration halted U.S. funding for the WHO and vowed to pull the United States — its biggest single donor — out of the U.N. health agency by next summer. President-elect Joe Biden has said he plans to keep the United States in the organization.
Much of the assembly session on Tuesday focused on the pandemic response, with key allies of Taiwan stepping in to complain that the island, which has recorded only seven COVID-19 deaths — deserves to granted “observer status” at WHO's meeting. On Monday, China and ally Pakistan dismissed such requests, saying that would breach the U.N.'s ‘One China’ policy and that disputes with Taiwan were a domestic Chinese problem.
The meeting finishes Saturday. So far the world has seen over 50 million confirmed coronavirus cases and 1.26 million deaths and experts say all numbers understate the pandemic's true toll.