WHO chief pledges independent review of coronavirus response

WHO chief pledges independent review of coronavirus response
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The director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) on Monday said he would support an independent review of the global response to the coronavirus as Western governments ratchet up pressure on China to be more transparent in what it knew and when it knew it about the deadly pathogen.

Speaking at the WHO's annual assembly on Monday, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he backed a resolution sponsored by Australia, European Union and African Group nations calling for an independent and comprehensive investigation into the way the coronavirus pandemic has been handled, led by WHO.

"I will initiate an independent evaluation at the earliest appropriate moment to review experience gained and lessons learned, and to make recommendations to improve national and global pandemic preparedness and response," Tedros said. "To be truly comprehensive, such an evaluation must encompass the entirety of the response by all actors, in good faith."

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Tedros had previously pledged an independent review. He reiterated that plan in the face of the resolution as more world leaders join President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal plan to contain Washington protests employs 7,600 personnel: report GOP Rep calls on primary opponent to condemn campaign surrogate's racist video Tennessee court rules all registered voters can obtain mail-in ballots due to COVID-19 MORE's calls for an inquiry into China's handling of the virus.

China first alerted the WHO to the presence of a cluster of atypical pneumonia in the city of Wuhan on Dec. 31, after WHO picked up reports through its Epidemic Intelligence System.

The WHO activated an incident management team the following day, and it issued its first warning about the pathogen on Jan. 2. WHO tweeted about the virus on Jan. 4, shared detailed technical information with its member states on Jan. 5 and published guidance for detecting, testing and managing cases on Jan. 10.

By Jan. 11, China had shared the virus's genetic sequence to facilitate the development of test kits.

But new evidence has shown that the virus was circulating in Wuhan as early as mid-November. China worked to silence some doctors raising alarms about the growing number of cases in December, efforts that will certainly face scrutiny in any retrospective investigation to come.

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The resolution does not mention China by name, but it is clearly aimed at the country where the coronavirus first broke out. China had objected to an early draft, but by Monday President Xi Jinping told the assembly in a video address that he supports a comprehensive investigation, once the virus is brought to heel.

"China supports a comprehensive evaluation of the global response to the epidemic after the global epidemic is under control, to sum up experiences and remedy deficiencies," Xi said Monday. "This work needs a scientific and professional attitude, and needs to be led by the WHO, and the principles of objectivity and fairness need to be upheld."

More than 120 nations have signed onto the resolution, though China and the United States are pointedly absent.

Independent reviews of pandemic responses are common, and recent outbreaks have led to comprehensive reforms meant to make the world safer. A SARS outbreak, also centered in China, led to new international health regulations that govern when a country must disclose the presence of a new pathogen. The H1N1 pandemic led to a new global influenza preparedness agreement.

And the anemic global response to an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, for which the WHO came under sustained criticism, led the agency to dramatically overhaul its own structure. After that outbreak, the WHO created a new emergencies program that is now overseeing the coronavirus response and an independent oversight panel meant to monitor WHO's actions in the future.

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WHO's reforms put it in a better position to detect and respond to the coronavirus than it had been, but Tedros said the virus needed to be a catalyst for deeper change, both in Geneva and across the globe.

"One thing is abundantly clear. The world must never be the same. We do not need a review to tell us that we must all do everything in our power to ensure this never happens again," he said Monday. "Whatever lessons there are to learn from this pandemic, the greatest failing would be to not learn from them, and to leave the world in the same vulnerable state it was before."

As the coronavirus has swept across the world, hitting the United States harder than any other nation, the WHO has come under criticism from some political leaders seeking to deflect blame for their own struggles to respond. President Trump has halted some funding to the WHO and suggested a new agency be created to oversee global public health.

"The world doesn’t need another plan, another system, another mechanism, another committee or another organization," Tedros said Monday. "It needs to strengthen, implement and finance the systems and organizations it has — including WHO."

Where the United States has cut funding, China and other nations have promised additional money. Xi said Monday China would commit an extra $2 billion to the fight against the coronavirus, and China said last week it would bolster its own commitment to funding WHO.

Tedros said the WHO would launch a new foundation aimed at increasing the agency's donor base — similar to a foundation that supports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States.

"The world can no longer afford the short-term amnesia that has characterized its response to health security for too long," he said. "The time has come to weave together the disparate strands of global health security into an unbreakable chain – a comprehensive framework for epidemic and pandemic preparedness."