Global response to Covid-19 a series of failures: WHO panel

It cites faulty assumptions, sluggish action, ineffective planning by govts, health bodies

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The head of the World Health Organization said on Monday (January 18) that the world was on the brink of a "catastrophic moral failure" on distributing Covid-19 vaccines, urging countries and manufacturers to share doses more fairly around the world.

GENEVA • Laying bare a year-long cascade of failures, a World Health Organisation (WHO) panel recounts in a damning report how governments and public health organisations worldwide responded slowly and ineffectively to the coronavirus, despite years of warnings.

Released on Monday, the interim report, an early blueprint for reform, describes the faulty assumptions, ineffective planning and sluggish responses, including missteps by the WHO itself, that helped fuel a pandemic that has killed more than two million people.

"We have failed in our collective capacity to come together in solidarity to create a protective web of human security," the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response writes.

The panel, led by Ms Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand, and Ms Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former president of Liberia, is still conducting its investigation.

But in drafting an interim report, and laying out the scope of its inquiry, the panel makes clear that the world needs to rethink its approach to outbreaks.

Public health officials stumbled, too.

Investigators said they could not understand why a WHO committee waited until Jan 30 to declare an international health emergency. And despite the decades of predictions that a viral pandemic was inevitable, and years of committees, task forces and high-level panels aimed at preparing the WHO for that emergency, changes were slow to come.

"The failure to enact fundamental change despite the warnings issued has left the world dangerously exposed, as the Covid-19 pandemic proves," the report says.

The report also faults public health leaders for responding slowly to early evidence that people without symptoms could spread the new coronavirus.

Early reports out of China, and one in Germany, documented this phenomenon.

But leading health agencies, including the WHO, provided contradictory and sometimes misleading advice, a New York Times investigation previously found.

WHO's director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus appointed the panel to review the world's Covid-19 response.

Although the panel said the report was based on hundreds of documents, expert consultations and more than 100 interviews with front-line responders, it is not clear if the investigators have spoken to key health officials or reviewed internal documents. The organisation declined to comment on the report before its member governments had reviewed it.

Meanwhile, the United States has called on China to allow an expert team from the WHO to interview "caregivers, former patients and lab workers" in the central city of Wuhan, and ensure its access to medical data and samples.

The team of WHO-led independent experts trying to determine the origins of the new coronavirus arrived last Thursday in Wuhan, where they are holding teleconferences with Chinese counterparts during a two-week quarantine before starting work on the ground.

The US, which has accused China of hiding the extent of its initial outbreak, has called for a "transparent" WHO-led investigation and criticised the terms of the visit, under which Chinese experts have done the first phase of research.

Mr Garrett Grigsby of the US Department of Health and Human Services on Monday said China should share all scientific studies into animal, human and environmental samples taken in Wuhan, where the Sars-CoV-2 virus is believed to have emerged in late 2019.

Comparative analysis of such genetic data would help to "look for overlap and potential sources" of the outbreak that sparked the Covid-19 pandemic, he told a session of the WHO's executive board due to last till next Tuesday.

China's representative, however, told the board: "The virus origin studies are of a scientific nature. It needs coordination, cooperation. We must stop any political pressure."

Australia's delegation also called for the WHO team to have access to "relevant data, information and key locations".


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2021, with the headline Global response to Covid-19 a series of failures: WHO panel. Subscribe