World Health Organization (W.H.O.) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus took the “unprecedented” measure this weekend of ignoring the agency’s special advisory committee to declare the spread of monkeypox a “public health emergency of international concern” – despite his lack of medical background and his own admission that the risk of it spreading was “moderate” at worst.
Tedros is the first W.H.O. director-general who is not a medical doctor and rose to the position after being accused of helping cover up multiple outbreaks of cholera in his native Ethiopia, where he served as foreign affairs minister and health minister under the now-outlawed Marxist party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
As head of the W.H.O., Tedros has faced an array of criticism for not reacting sufficiently quickly to an outbreak of Ebola in Africa under his watch and, more prominently, for failing to declare the spread of Chinese coronavirus a global emergency, and later a pandemic, in a timely manner.
Concerns regarding Tedros’ actions on monkeypox posit the opposite problem – that he overreacted to a situation, even as the medical experts tasked with assessing the risk did not believe it merited the label of public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC).
The special advisory committee, which Tedros is not mandated to obey but expected to listen to, concluded last month that the spread of monkeypox globally did not yet rise to the title of global emergency. Its 15 members similarly concluded by majority this week that the situation remained the same – nine panel members opposed using the label PHEIC while six supported it, according to Reuters.
Reuters bizarrely described Tedros overriding the panel to declare a global emergency a “tie-breaker,” despite nine versus six not being a tie. Tedros himself described the situation as such, claiming he “had to act as a tie-breaker” on Saturday — revealing the news wire as a mere stenographer to his spin.
Science magazine observed, citing health experts, that Tedros’ declaration was the first of its kind in the history of the World Health Organization, a United Nations agency.
“This is big, unprecedented decision-making by the director general,” Clare Wenham, a global health expert at the London School of Economics, told Science. The PHEIC system has existed for 17 years.
The magazine added the context that the special advisory panel convened for seven hours before deciding by a majority that the W.H.O. should not declare a PHEIC, the highest level of warning to the world on a public health event. Science noted, providing little further detail, that the seven-hour meeting on Thursday “was followed by tense exchanges via email and text messages between those who had taken part.”
“Among the objections to a PHEIC raised by members of the committee was that the disease had caused few deaths so far and was not spreading in the general population,” Science reported, “along with fears that a PHEIC could lead to further stigmatization of men who have sex with men (MSM), the group primarily affected.”
According to Rosamund Lewis, the W.H.O.’s top monkeypox expert, 99 percent of individuals diagnosed with monkeypox outside of Africa were men and 98 percent of those were men who have sex with men.
“Experts suspect the monkeypox outbreaks in Europe and North America were spread via sex at two raves in Belgium and Spain,” the Associated Press observed this weekend.
Tedros defended his decision in remarks on Saturday in which he claimed that the committee “was unable to reach a consensus on whether the outbreak represents a public health emergency of international concern,” despite the fact that most members of the committee did reach a consensus against declaring a PHEIC.
He acknowledged the evidence that the disease appeared to be spreading within a singular community and used it to pressure governments to “work closely with communities of men who have sex with men, to design and deliver effective information and services, and to adopt measures that protect the health, human rights and dignity of affected communities.”
“Stigma and discrimination can be as dangerous as any virus,” Tedros declared. He added that the fact that the disease was not spreading widely among a generalized population did not diminish the PHEIC, but rather meant “that this is an outbreak that can be stopped with the right strategies in the right groups.”
“WHO’s assessment is that the risk of monkeypox is moderate globally and in all regions, except in the European region where we assess the risk as high,” Tedros said. “There is also a clear risk of further international spread, although the risk of interference with international traffic remains low for the moment.”
The executive director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Programme, Michael Ryan, insisted in remarks reproduced by the Associated Press this weekend that Tedros was “not going against the committee” by ignoring the majority of the committee.
“[Tedros] found that the committee did not reach a consensus, despite having a very open, very useful, very considered debate on the issues,” Ryan told reporters, “and that since he’s not going against the committee, what he’s recognizing is that there are deep complexities in this issue. There are uncertainties on all sides.”
The administration of leftist American President Joe Biden lent its support to Tedros in a statement this weekend.
“Today’s decision by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) to declare the current monkeypox outbreak as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern is a call to action for the world community to stop the spread of this virus,” the White House asserted on Saturday.
“A coordinated, international response is essential to stop the spread of monkeypox, protect communities at greatest risk of contracting the disease, and combat the current outbreak.”
Tedros’ decision on monkeypox is the latest in a career littered with controversies and accusations of disregarding medical experts – a particularly grave transgression in light of the fact that Tedros was a career politician in Ethiopia prior to his ascent at the agency and not a medical doctor.
In 2017, when running for the position of director-general, the far-left newspaper New York Times detailed accusations against Tedros of having covered up at least three cholera outbreaks in Ethiopia by simply refusing to formally diagnose individuals suffering from clear cholera symptoms with the disease.
“Outbreaks occurring in 2006, 2009 and 2011, he said, were only ‘acute watery diarrhea’ in remote areas where laboratory testing ‘is difficult,’” according to the New York Times.
According to the W.H.O., cholera is “an acute diarrhoeal disease.”
Tedros also faced criticism for refusing to raise the PHEIC alarm over an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Uganda in 2019 despite Tedros saying then that, unlike his description of monkeypox this weekend, “the risk of spread across the border is high.” Tedros dismissed the outbreak as “unsurprising.”
During the early days of the Chinese coronavirus pandemic, believed to have begun in fall 2019 in central Wuhan, China, Tedros’ W.H.O. claimed that “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” of the highly contagious disease existed – despite having received an email from the government of Taiwan in late December warning of an infectious disease spreading in China. A report by the German newspaper Der Spiegel in May 2020 accused Tedros of conspiring with dictator Xi Jinping not to brand the global spread of Chinese coronavirus a pandemic in a phone call allegedly taking place on January 21. Both Tedros and the Chinese Communist Party denied that the call ever happened.
Tedros was “reelected” in an uncontested race to lead the W.H.O. for a second term last year.