An independent expert panel commissioned by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) issued a report Wednesday that concluded the worldwide coronavirus pandemic could have been prevented with a swifter and more decisive response in early 2020.
The report was only tepidly critical of the Chinese government or W.H.O. itself, arguing that “global political leadership was absent” from all quarters.
The report from the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response described the Chinese coronavirus pandemic as a “preventable disaster” and found “weak links at every point in the chain of preparedness and response.”
“Years of warnings of an inevitable pandemic threat were not acted on and there was inadequate funding and stress testing of preparedness, despite the increasing rate at which zoonotic diseases are emerging,” the report said.
The report faulted China for not formally notifying the international medical community about the full dimensions of the Wuhan outbreak quickly enough, but this was the only significant criticism of China included in the panel’s “key findings.”
The panel did not dwell on what the Chinese government did to the Chinese clinicians it praised for quickly spotting “unusual clusters of pneumonia of unknown origin in late December 2019.” It did not accuse the Chinese state of concealing vital information or providing false information to the world, as it most certainly has done.
The report gently chided W.H.O for taking a bit too long to declare an international public health emergency in January 2020, and then bizarrely complained that “too many countries took a ‘wait and see’ approach rather than enacting an aggressive containment strategy” – without noting that China worked tirelessly to undermine effective containment strategies in other countries. The Chinese Communist Party has been quick to impose travel bans for its own protection, but it fought tooth and nail – with no small amount of assistance from W.H.O. last year – to prevent anyone else from banning travel from China.
“W.H.O. staff worked extremely hard to provide advice and guidance, and support to countries, but Member States had underpowered the agency to do the job demanded of it,” the panel asserted.
Panel co-chair Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand, said too many countries waited “until hospital ICU beds began to fill” before taking Chinese coronavirus seriously, prompting “a winner-takes-all scramble for PPE [protective gear] and therapeutics.” Not mentioned was China downplaying the threat of the coronavirus so it could scramble to buy up worldwide supplies of PPE before other countries realized they would need that equipment at home.
The report dabbled in some political analysis, lamenting the “widening inequalities” caused by the pandemic because of its “disproportionate socio-economic impact on women and vulnerable and marginalized populations, including migrants and workers in the informal sector.”
The panel’s first recommendation was for “high-income countries with a vaccine pipeline for adequate coverage” to make more of their vaccines available to lower-income countries, including through “voluntary licensing and technology transfer.” The authors urged the World Trade Organization (WTO) to summarily waive intellectual property rights in three months if vaccine creators do not agree to transfer their technology voluntarily.
Having waved aside most criticism of W.H.O.’s performance during the pandemic, the panel demanded more funding for the organization and an even stronger position for its director-general.
One of its recommendations for enhanced W.H.O. authority could be taken as a veiled criticism of China – the call for a “new global system for surveillance, based on full transparency for all parties,” that would empower the World Health Organization to bypass intransigent and secretive national governments when it believes a pandemic might be brewing.
The panel urged giving W.H.O. “both the explicit authority to publish information about outbreaks with pandemic potential immediately without requiring the prior approval of national governments, and the power to investigate pathogens with pandemic potential with short-notice access to relevant sites, provision of samples, and standing multi-entry visas for international epidemic experts to outbreak locations.”