As the coronavirus exploded around the globe, scientists at the World Health Organization (WHO) were sometimes privately frustrated by the mistakes made by some of their top donor countries but reluctant to say so publicly, leaked recordings of internal meetings show.
After sharp criticism for not taking a stronger role in curbing the pandemic, the UN health agency holds its annual meeting this week under intense pressure to reform. WHO is also hoping that U.S. president-elect Joe Biden will reverse a decision by Washington to leave the organization made by the Trump administration in June.
One of WHO’s central dilemmas is that it has no enforcement powers or authority to independently investigate epidemics. Instead, the agency relies on behind-the-scenes talks and countries’ co-operation.
As the pandemic gained pace, WHO often shied away from calling out some of its biggest donors, including Japan, France and Britain. WHO scientists labelled some of their approaches “macabre” and “an unfortunate laboratory to study the virus,” according to dozens of leaked recordings of internal WHO meetings and documents from January to April obtained by The Associated Press.
“By not speaking up when countries are doing questionable things, WHO is undermining its own authority while the planet burns,” said Sophie Harman, a professor of international politics at Queen Mary University in London.
Others said it would be politically unwise for WHO to be too outspoken unless countries give the agency more power.
“If Tedros was to take a very aggressive stance toward member countries, there would be repercussions,” said Suerie Moon, co-director of the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute of Geneva, referring to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Concerns started with China
WHO spokesperson Farah Dakhlallah said that since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, “WHO officials have had and continue to have, frank and open discussions with government counterparts. “We are proud of an organizational culture that fosters candid discussions.”
It’s not unprecedented for WHO to publicly question its member states. It threatened to close its China office when the country was hiding cases during the SARS outbreak and loudly called for Nigeria to reverse its boycott of the polio vaccine in 2003.
WHO’s reticence to call out countries started with China, as the AP earlier reported. Despite a January meeting between Tedros and Chinese President Xi Jinping, information from Beijing was still sparse throughout February. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, noted that the agency lacked “enough detail to say what has worked and what hasn’t.”
WHO scientists soon grew concerned about Japan. On Feb. 1, a passenger who disembarked the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Hong Kong tested positive for the coronavirus. At the ship’s next stop in Yokohama, authorities put all 3,711 people aboard under lockdown.
WHO emergencies chief Michael Ryan told reporters at the time: “Let’s be careful here not to overreact.” But on Feb. 10, the case count nearly doubled overnight.
“[That’s] not surprising given the nature of the response of the investigation,” Ryan said at an internal meeting, noting Japan had only assigned a small number of epidemiologists to investigate.
Dr. Thomas Grein, WHO’s chief of acute events management team, said they had failed to glean much information from their Japanese counterparts, calling it a “very, very sensitive issue.”
Although WHO was keenly aware the situation was deteriorating, scientists said the outbreak could help in understanding COVID-19 transmission.
“[It’s] unfortunate but a useful opportunity to study the natural history of the virus,” Ryan said.
In late February, the virus also gained a foothold in Italy, turning Europe into the epicentre of the pandemic.
At WHO, Grein told his colleagues that WHO’s efforts to get more detail about the spiralling outbreaks in Italy and elsewhere had “spectacularly failed” as officials worried about the lack of action taken across Europe.
Yet on March 8, Tedros tweeted that “the government & the people of Italy are taking bold, courageous steps aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.”
Lawrence Gostin, director of the WHO Collaborating Center on Public Health Law and Human Rights at Georgetown University, said WHO should be obligated to report when countries are not sharing data, saying it was dangerous for the agency to be “flying blind.”
Other WHO complaints
WHO also complained in private about Western countries hoarding scarce pandemic supplies.
“We had the terrible situation yesterday with [protective personal equipment] where all the supplies were requisitioned in France, and we lost access,” Ryan told his colleagues.
As countries across Europe adopted physical distancing measures and cancelled mass gatherings in early March, Ryan noticed one country did not: Britain.
“There isn’t a single sports event in Europe, and yet all of the Premier League matches in the U.K. are to go ahead,” he said.
Ryan described Britain’s pandemic strategy as “problematic” after hearing the U.K.’s chief scientific officer say the country was aiming for herd immunity.
“For that to happen, hundreds of thousands and millions of older people are going to become infected, and there is just going to be so much death,” Ryan said.
Still, he said the different approaches to tackling COVID-19 globally could prove to be “a massive ecological study” that would allow WHO to document what worked.
“It’s macabre in some ways, but it’s reality,” he said.
Going forward, WHO’s role trying to stop the pandemic will depend in part on the independent panel review. Harman, the expert from Queen Mary University, sympathized that WHO had enormous responsibility in the early months of COVID-19 but said even greater challenges loom now.
“With the next wave of the pandemic, I think the time for quiet diplomacy has passed,” she said.