WHO agrees independent pandemic review

China pledges $2bn to the organisation, US deepens criticism

The World Health Organisation agreed on Monday to held an independent review of the global coronavirus response “as soon as possible”, amid a hefty pledge of funds from China and an outcry by the WHO’s chief critic, the US administration of President Donald Trump, for an “apparent attempt to conceal this outbreak by at least one member state”.

A resolution on the need to investigate the global response to the coronavirus pandemic won endorsement at the meeting on Tuesday. None of the WHO’s 194 member states - which include the United States - raised objections to the resolution brought by the European Union on behalf of more than 100 countries including Australia, China and Japan.

Trump has already suspended US funding for the WHO after accusing it of being too China-centric, and at the same time led international criticism of Beijing’s perceived lack of transparency in the early stages of the crisis. US Health Secretary Alex Azar did not mention China by name, but made clear Washington considered the WHO jointly responsible. “We must be frank about one of the primary reasons this outbreak spun out of control. There was a failure by this organisation to obtain the information that the world needed, and that failure cost many lives,” he said.

Speaking after Azar, Chinese Health Minister Ma Xiaowei said Beijing had been timely and open in announcing the outbreak and sharing the virus’s full gene sequence, and urged countries to “oppose rumours, stigmatisation and discrimination”. Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged $2bn over the next two years to help deal with COVID-19, especially in developing countries. The amount almost matches the WHO’s entire annual programme budget for last year, and more than compensates for Trump’s freeze of US payments worth about $400m a year.

According to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the UN body had “sounded the alarm early, and we sounded it often”. When it declared a global emergency on 30 January, there were fewer than 100 cases outside China, and no deaths, he said addressing a virtual meeting of the WHO’s decision-making body, the World Health Assembly.

Ghebreyesus, who has always promised a review, told the forum it would come “at the earliest appropriate moment” and make recommendations for the future. He received robust backing from the WHO’s independent oversight panel. “Every country and every organisation must examine its response and learn from its experience,” he said, adding that the review must cover “all actors in good faith”.

In its first report on the handling of the pandemic, the seven-member oversight committee said the WHO had “demonstrated leadership and made important progress in its COVID-19 response”. The panel endorsed a review but said conducting it now could hamper the WHO’s response to the pandemic. It also said “an imperfect and evolving understanding” was not unusual when a new disease emerged.

A resolution drafted by the EU calling for an independent evaluation of the WHO’s performance appeared to have won consensus backing among the WHO’s 194 states. It is expected to be debated and adopted on Tuesday. German Health Minister Jens Spahn said the WHO must become “more independent from external interference” and that its role in “leading and coordination” must be strengthened.

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