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WHO chief pledges probe into pandemic response ‘at earliest appropriate moment’

The WHO announced the coronavirus outbreak to be a global health emergency on January 30.

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Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

The head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said he will begin an independent evaluation of the UN health agency’s response to the coronavirus pandemic “at the earliest appropriate moment”.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made the pledge after an independent oversight advisory body published its first interim report about the agency’s response to Covid-19 from January to April.

The 11-page report raised questions such as whether the WHO’s warning system for alerting the world to outbreaks is adequate, and suggested member states might need to “reassess” the WHO’s role in providing travel advice to countries.

The advisory body’s review and recommendations appeared unlikely to appease the United States administration, which has been scathing in its criticism of the WHO — in part over President Donald Trump’s allegation that it had criticised a US travel ban that he ordered on people arriving from China, where the outbreak first appeared late last year.

Mr Trump ordered a temporary suspension of funding for the WHO from the United States — the health agency’s biggest single donor — pending a review of its early response. But the review panel, echoing comments from many countries, said such a review during the “heat of the response” could hurt the WHO’s ability to respond to it.

Earlier, the European Union and other countries called for an independent evaluation of WHO response to the pandemic “to review experience gained and lessons learned”. The resolution has the support of more than half of the WHO’s member countries.

The move comes amid Australia’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of the pandemic and the WHO’s response to it.

The EU resolution proposes that the independent evaluation should be initiated “at the earliest appropriate moment” and should, among other issues, examine “the actions of the WHO and their timelines pertaining to the Covid-19 pandemic”.

The WHO announced the coronavirus outbreak to be a global health emergency on January 30, its highest level of alert. In the following weeks, the WHO warned countries there was a narrowing “window of opportunity” to prevent the virus from spreading globally.

WHO officials, however, repeatedly described the transmission of the virus as “limited” and said it was not as transmissible as flu; experts have since said Covid-19 spreads even faster.

It declared the outbreak to be a pandemic on March 11, after the virus had killed thousands globally and sparked large epidemics in South Korea, Italy, Iran and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping said China will provide two billion dollars over two years to help with the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr XI’s announcement via video-conference at the start of the WHO’s annual assembly marked a sharp contrast to the United States: The Trump administration has announced a suspension of its funding for the WHO over its alleged mishandling of the outbreak and praise of China’s response.

Mr Xi added that China had provided all relevant outbreak data to the WHO and other countries, including the virus’s genetic sequence, “in a most timely fashion”.

“We have shared control and treatment experience with the world without reservation,” Mr Xi said. “We have done everything in our power to support and assist countries in need.”

In his address to the annual meeting of WHO member countries, Dr Tedros warned there is still “a long road to travel” before the pandemic is contained, noting that the majority of the world’s population remains susceptible to the virus.

Dr Tedros said the pandemic has exposed critical fault lines between countries that could jeopardise stopping the virus.

“Science has been hailed and scorned, nations have come together as never before and geopolitical divisions have been thrown into sharp relief,” he said.

Dr Tedros emphasised that The WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a global health emergency on January 30, its highest level of alert, at a time when there were fewer than 100 cases outside of China.

He added that the WHO was committed to “transparency, accountability, and continuous improvement” and welcomed the proposal for an independent evaluation of the global response to Covid-19, including the WHO’s coordinating role.

“I will initiate an independent evaluation at the earliest appropriate moment,” he said.

PA