GENEVA – When the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic one 12 months in the past Thursday, it did so solely after weeks of resisting the time period and sustaining that the extremely infectious virus might nonetheless be stopped.
A 12 months later, the U.N. company continues to be struggling to maintain on prime of the evolving science of COVID-19, to steer international locations to desert their nationalistic tendencies and assist get vaccines the place they’re wanted most.
The company made some expensive missteps alongside the best way: It suggested folks in opposition to carrying masks for months and asserted that COVID-19 wasn’t broadly unfold within the air. It additionally declined to publicly name out international locations — significantly China — for errors that senior WHO officers grumbled about privately.
That created some difficult politics that challenged WHO’s credibility and wedged it between two world powers, setting off vociferous Trump administration criticism that the company is just now rising from.
President Joe Biden’s help for WHO might present some much-needed respiration house, however the group nonetheless faces a monumental activity forward because it tries to challenge some ethical authority amid a common scramble for vaccines that’s leaving billions of individuals unprotected.
“WHO has been a bit behind, being cautious moderately than precautionary,” mentioned Gian Luca Burci, a former WHO authorized counsel now at Geneva’s Graduate Institute. “At instances of panic, of a disaster and so forth, possibly being extra out on a limb — taking a danger — would have been higher.”
WHO waved its first massive warning flag on Jan. 30, 2020, by calling the outbreak a world well being emergency. But many international locations ignored or ignored the warning.
Only when WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared a “pandemic” six weeks later, on March 11, 2020, did most governments take motion, specialists mentioned. By then, it was too late, and the virus had reached each continent besides Antarctica.
A 12 months later, WHO nonetheless seems hamstrung. A WHO-led workforce that traveled to China in January to analyze the origins of COVID-19 was criticized for failing to dismiss China’s fringe concept that the virus may be unfold through tainted frozen seafood.
That got here after WHO repeatedly lauded China final 12 months for its speedy, clear response — although recordings of personal conferences obtained by The Associated Press confirmed that prime officers have been pissed off on the nation’s lack of cooperation.
“Everybody has been questioning why WHO was so praising of China again in January” 2020, Burci mentioned, including that the reward has come again “to hang-out WHO big-time.”
Some specialists say WHO’s blunders got here at a excessive worth, and it stays too reliant on iron-clad science as an alternative of taking calculated dangers to maintain folks safer — whether or not on methods like mask-wearing or whether or not COVID-19 is commonly unfold via the air.
“Without a doubt, WHO’s failure to endorse masks earlier value lives,” mentioned Dr. Trish Greenhalgh, a professor of major care well being sciences at Oxford University who sits on a number of WHO knowledgeable committees. Not till June did WHO advise folks to often put on masks, lengthy after different well being companies and quite a few international locations did so.
Greenhalgh mentioned she was much less enthusiastic about asking WHO to atone for previous errors than revising its insurance policies going ahead. In October, she wrote to the pinnacle of a key WHO committee on an infection management, elevating considerations in regards to the lack of understanding amongst some members. She by no means obtained a response.
“This scandal isn’t just up to now. It’s within the current and escalating into the long run,” Greenhalgh mentioned.
Raymond Tellier, an affiliate professor at Canada’s McGill University who makes a speciality of coronaviruses, mentioned WHO’s continued reluctance to acknowledge how usually COVID-19 is unfold within the air might show extra harmful with the arrival of recent virus variants first recognized in Britain and South Africa which might be much more transmissible.
“If WHO’s suggestions aren’t sturdy sufficient, we might see the pandemic go on for much longer,” he mentioned.
With a number of licensed vaccines, WHO is now working to make sure that folks on the planet’s poorest international locations obtain doses via the COVAX initiative, which is geared toward guaranteeing poor international locations get COVID-19 vaccines.
But COVAX has solely a fraction of the two billion vaccines it’s hoping to ship by the tip of the 12 months. Some international locations which have waited months for photographs have grown impatient, opting to signal their very own non-public offers for faster vaccine entry.
WHO chief Tedros has responded largely by interesting to international locations to behave in “solidarity,” warning that the world is on the point of a “catastrophic ethical failure” if vaccines aren’t distributed pretty. Although he has requested wealthy international locations to share their doses instantly with creating international locations and to not strike new offers that will jeopardize the vaccine provide for poorer international locations, none have obliged.
“WHO is attempting to steer by ethical authority, however repeating ‘solidarity’ time and again when it’s being ignored by international locations appearing in their very own self-interest exhibits they don’t seem to be recognizing actuality,” mentioned Amanda Glassman, govt vice chairman of the Center for Global Development. “It’s time to name issues out for the best way they’re.”
Yet all through the pandemic, WHO has repeatedly declined to censure wealthy international locations for his or her flawed makes an attempt to cease the virus. Internally, WHO officers described a few of their largest member international locations’ approaches to stemming COVID-19 as “an unlucky laboratory to check the virus” and “macabre.”
More lately, Tedros appears to have discovered a barely firmer voice — talking fact to leaders like Germany’s president in regards to the want for rich international locations to share vaccines or criticizing China for dragging its heels in not rapidly granting visas to the WHO-led investigative workforce.
Irwin Redlener of Columbia University mentioned WHO ought to be extra aggressive in instructing international locations what to do, given the extraordinarily unequal approach COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed.
“WHO can’t order international locations to do issues, however they’ll make very clear and specific steering that makes it tough for international locations to not observe,” Redlener mentioned.
WHO’s prime officers have mentioned repeatedly it’s not the company’s fashion to criticize international locations.
At a press briefing this month, WHO senior adviser Dr. Bruce Aylward mentioned merely: “We can’t inform particular person international locations what to do.”