WHO launches investigation of its handling of pandemic

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The World Health Organisation (WHO) has bowed to calls from most of its member states to launch an independent investigation into its management of the international response to the coronavirus.

The move comes after weeks of finger-pointing between the US and China over the pandemic, which has killed more than 300,000 people and devastated the global economy.

The “comprehensive evaluation,” sought by a coalition of African, European and other countries, is intended to review “lessons learned” from WHO’s coordination of the global response to COVID-19.

But it would stop short of examining contentious issues such as the origins of the new coronavirus.

US President Donald Trump has claimed he has proof suggesting the coronavirus originated in a lab in China, while the scientific community has insisted all evidence to date shows the virus likely jumped into humans from animals.

In Washington earlier this week, Trump criticised the WHO for having done “a very sad job” and said he was considering whether to cut the annual US funding of the body from $450m (£368 million) a year to $40m (£32.8 million).

“They gave us a lot of bad advice, terrible advice,” he said. “They were wrong so much, always on the side of China.”

Trump also tweeted a letter he had sent WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in which the president said “the only way forward” was if WHO “can actually demonstrate independence from China”.

Trump said unless WHO committed to “substantive improvements over the next 30 days”, he would make his temporary suspension of US funding permanent.

A spokeswoman for the World Health Organisation said the UN health agency does not have an immediate reaction to the letter from Trump.

WHO’s normally bureaucratic annual assembly this week has been overshadowed by mutual recriminations and political sniping between the US and China.

Ghebreyesus said he would launch an independent evaluation of WHO’s response “at the earliest appropriate moment” — alluding to findings published on Monday, May 18, 2020 in a first report by an oversight advisory body commissioned to look into WHO’s response.

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

In his opening remarks at the WHO meeting, Ghebreyesus held firm and sought to focus on the bigger troubles posed by the outbreak, saying “we have been humbled by this very small microbe”.

“This contagion exposes the fault lines, inequalities, injustices and contradictions of our modern world,” Ghebreyesus said. “And geopolitical divisions have been thrown into sharp relief.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping insisted China had acted with “openness, transparency and responsibility” when the epidemic was detected in Wuhan.

He said China had give all relevant outbreak data to WHO and other countries, including the virus’s genetic sequence, “in a most timely fashion”.

Xi said that in recent weeks China had dispatched medical supplies to more than 50 African countries and that 46 Chinese medical teams were currently on the continent helping local officials.

Xi has said China supports the idea of a comprehensive review of the global response to COVID-19 and that it should be “based on science and professionalism led by WHO, and conducted in an objective and impartial manner”.

Health experts say Trump’s increasing attacks on the WHO demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the UN agency’s role.

Devi Sridhar, a professor of global health at the University of Edinburgh, said: “China and the US are fighting it out like divorced parents while WHO is the child caught in the middle, trying not to pick sides.

“President Trump doesn’t understand what the WHO can and cannot do,” she said, explaining that it sets international standards and is driven by its member countries.

Michael Head, a senior research fellow at the University of Southampton, said much of what Trump was demanding was beyond the WHO’s intended scope.

“The WHO have limited powers, in terms of what they can demand of countries where outbreaks are taking place,” he said. “They provide expert guidance and not enforcement by law.”

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