The World Health Organisation is underpowered and underfunded, and must be reformed to give it the resourcing to be more effective, according to an independent panel reviewing the WHO and the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are not here to assign blame but to make concrete recommendations to help the world respond faster and better in future,” the panel’s co-chair Ellen Johnson Sirleaf told reporters on a briefing on Tuesday, a day after the panel’s interim report was issued.
“I do believe that WHO is reformable,” she said.
Johnson Sirleaf said it was up to countries whether they wanted to overhaul the 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. This clearly isn’t working,” she added.
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 reality is that only a minority of countries took full advantage of the information available to them to respond to the evidence of an emerging pandemic,” the panel said.
The experts also wondered why the 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.
At the time, WHO said its expert committee was divided on whether a global emergency should be declared.
“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.
The pandemic has killed more than 2 million people worldwide.