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China, WHO should have acted faster to stop COVID-19 pandemic, panel says

Arriving passengers in masks walk out of a Beijing railway station Tuesday.
Arriving passengers walk out of a Beijing railway station Tuesday.
(Andy Wong / Associated Press)

A panel of experts commissioned by the World Health Organization has criticized China and other countries for not moving faster to stem the initial outbreak of the coronavirus and questioned whether the WHO ought to have labeled it a pandemic sooner.

In a report made public Monday, the panel led by former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said there were “lost opportunities” to set up basic public health measures as early as possible.

“What is clear to the panel is that public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China in January,” shortly after the coronavirus began sickening clusters of people, the report said.

At a news briefing Tuesday, Johnson Sirleaf said it was up to countries whether they wanted to overhaul the WHO to give it more authority to stamp out outbreaks, saying that the organization was also constrained by its lack of funding.

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“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.”

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.

International researchers have arrived in Wuhan, China, to investigate the coronavirus’ origins amid fears of potential interference from Beijing.

“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.

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Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, disputed the conclusion that China had acted too slowly.

“As the first country to sound the global alarm against the epidemic, China made immediate and decisive decisions,” she said, pointing out that the city of Wuhan — where the first human cases were identified — was locked down within three weeks of the outbreak starting.

“All countries — not only China but also the U.S., the U.K., Japan or any other countries — should all try to do better,” Hua said.

More than 20,000 villagers were taken by bus to centralized quarantine as China seeks to stem a new coronavirus outbreak in Hebei province.

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The expert panel also wondered why the WHO did not declare a global public health emergency — its highest warning for outbreaks — sooner. The U.N. health agency convened its emergency committee Jan. 22, 2020, but did not characterize the emerging pandemic as an international emergency until a week later. At the time, the 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.

The WHO did not describe the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic until March 11, 2020, weeks after the coronavirus had begun causing explosive outbreaks on numerous continents, meeting the WHO’s definition of a pandemic.

As the coronavirus began spreading across the globe, the WHO’s top experts disputed how infectious the virus was, saying that it was not as contagious as the flu and that people without symptoms only rarely spread the virus. Scientists have since concluded that the coronavirus transmits even faster than the flu and that a significant proportion of spread is from people who don’t appear to be sick.

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Over the past year, the WHO has come under heavy criticism for its handling of the response to the coronavirus. President Trump slammed the U.N. health agency for “colluding” with China to cover up the extent of the initial outbreak and pulled the U.S. out of the organization, a move President-elect Joe Biden is likely to reverse.

The U.N. health agency bowed to the international pressure at the annual assembly of its member states last spring by creating the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, which produced its first report in November. The WHO chief asked Johnson Sirleaf and Clark — who both have previous ties to the U.N. agency — to lead the team.

An Associated Press investigation in June found that the WHO repeatedly lauded China in public while officials privately complained that China was stalling on sharing critical epidemic information with them.

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Although the panel concluded that “many countries took minimal action to prevent the spread [of the coronavirus] internally and internationally,” it did not name specific countries. It also declined to call out the WHO for failing to criticize countries more sharply for their missteps instead of lauding them for their response efforts.

Last month, the author of a withdrawn WHO report into Italy’s pandemic response said he warned his bosses in May that people could die and that the agency could suffer “catastrophic” reputational damage if it allowed political concerns to suppress the document, according to emails obtained by the AP.


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