One year later, WHO is still struggling to manage the response to a pandemic

GENEVA (AP) – When the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic on Thursday a year ago, it did so only after weeks of resisting the term and arguing that the highly infectious virus could still be stopped.

A year later, the UN agency is still struggling to keep abreast of the evolving science of COVID-19, to persuade countries to abandon their nationalistic tendencies and help get vaccines where they are most needed.

The agency made some costly mistakes along the way: it advised people not to wear masks for months and claimed that COVID-19 did not spread widely in the air. He also refused to publicly criticize countries, particularly China, for mistakes that senior WHO officials privately complained about.

That created some complicated policies that challenged the credibility of the WHO and wedged it between two world powers, sparking vociferous criticism of the Trump administration from which the agency is only now emerging.

President Joe Biden’s endorsement of the WHO may provide much-needed respite, but the organization still faces a monumental task ahead as it attempts to project some moral authority amid a universal fight for vaccines that is leaving billions of people behind. unprotected people.

“The WHO has been a bit late, being cautious rather than precautionary,” said Gian Luca Burci, a former WHO legal adviser now at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. “In times of panic, crisis, etc., perhaps being more risky, taking risks, would have been better.”

The WHO waved its first major warning flag on January 30, 2020, calling the outbreak an international health emergency. But many countries ignored or ignored the warning.

Only when WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared a “pandemic” six weeks later, on March 11, 2020, did most governments take action, experts said. By then, it was too late and the virus had reached every continent except Antarctica.

A year later, the WHO still appears to be at a standstill. A WHO-led team that traveled to China in January to investigate the origins of COVID-19 was criticized for not ruling out China’s fringe theory that the virus could be spread through contaminated frozen seafood.

That came after the WHO repeatedly praised China last year for its swift and transparent response, despite recordings of private meetings obtained by The Associated Press. showed that senior officials were frustrated by the country’s lack of cooperation.

“Everyone has been wondering why the WHO praised China so much in January 2020,” Burci said, adding that the praise has returned “to haunt the WHO in a big way.”

Some experts say the WHO’s mistakes came at a high price and it continues to rely too heavily on ironclad science rather than taking calculated risks to keep people safer, be it on strategies like wearing masks or if COVID-19 often spread through the air.

“Without a doubt, the failure of the WHO to endorse previous masks cost lives,” said Dr Trish Greenhalgh, a professor of primary care health sciences at the University of Oxford who sits on various expert committees. of the WHO. Not until june Did the WHO advise people to wear masks regularly, long after other health agencies and numerous countries did?

Greenhalgh said she was less interested in asking the WHO to fix past mistakes than in reviewing its policies in the future. In October, he wrote to the head of a key WHO committee on infection control, expressing concern about the lack of experience among some members. She never received an answer.

“This scandal is not just from the past. It is in the present and it escalates into the future, ”Greenhalgh said.

Raymond Tellier, an associate professor at Canada’s McGill University who specializes in coronaviruses, said the WHO’s continued reluctance to recognize how often COVID-19 spreads in the air could prove more dangerous with the arrival of new ones. variants of the virus first identified in Great Britain and South Africa that are even more transmissible.

“If the WHO recommendations are not strong enough, we could see that the pandemic would last much longer,” he said.

With several licensed vaccines, WHO is now working to ensure that people in the world’s poorest countries receive doses through the COVAX initiative, which aims to ensure that poor countries receive COVID-19 vaccines.

But COVAX has only a fraction of the 2 billion vaccines he hopes to meet before the end of the year. Some countries that have waited months for vaccines have grown impatient, opting to sign their own private agreements for faster access to vaccines.

WHO chief Tedros has responded largely by calling on countries to act in “solidarity,” warning that the world is on the brink of “catastrophic moral failure.” if vaccines are not distributed fairly. Although he has asked the rich countries to share their doses immediately with developing countries and not to close new agreements that jeopardize the supply of vaccines to the poorest countries, none has forced.

“WHO is trying to lead with moral authority, but by repeating ‘solidarity’ over and over when countries acting in their own interest ignore it, it shows they are not recognizing reality,” said Amanda Glassman, Executive Vice President of the Center. for Global Development. “It’s time to tell it like it is.”

Yet throughout the pandemic, the WHO has repeatedly refused to censure rich countries for their failed attempts to stop the virus. Internally, WHO officials described Some of its most important member countries’ approaches to curbing COVID-19 as “an unfortunate laboratory to study the virus” and “macabre.”

More recently, Tedros seems to have found a slightly stronger voice: telling leaders like Germany’s president the truth about the need for rich countries to share vaccines or criticizing China for delaying in not granting visas quickly. to the research team led by WHO.

Irwin Redlener of Columbia University said the WHO should be more aggressive in instructing countries on what to do, given the extremely uneven way COVID-19 vaccines are distributed.

“The WHO can’t order countries to do things, but they can give very clear and explicit guidance that makes it difficult for countries not to follow them,” Redlener said.

Senior WHO officials have repeatedly said that it is not the agency’s style to criticize countries.

At a press conference this month, WHO senior adviser Dr. Bruce Aylward said simply: “We cannot tell every country what to do.”


AP medical writer Maria Cheng reported from London.


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