WHO again in the hot seat

Geneva (hooly News) – WHO, criticized in the past for having overreacted or been too lax during major epidemics, does it play its future in the battle against the coronavirus, while some accuse it of having delayed to alert?

Created in 1948, the World Health Organization (WHO), one of the most powerful UN agencies with its more than 7,000 employees worldwide, recommends, with all its expertise, but remains dependent on the will of the States. This does not prevent it from being regularly criticized.

After the H1N1 flu of 2009, which was less deadly than feared, she had been accused of having overreacted under pressure from pharmaceutical companies to declare the pandemic, which had caused the massive production of drugs.

He was then criticized, during the terrible Ebola epidemic in West Africa (2013), for not having measured the scale of the crisis from the start. A reform later, the UN agency can respond more quickly and effectively to epidemic outbreaks, as it is currently doing in the DRC, confronted since 2018 with an Ebola epidemic.

The arrival of the coronavirus in late December in China has raised criticism.

As in 2013, but to a lesser extent, the WHO is singled out for having launched the alert too late, delayed in sending experts on the spot, procrastinating before qualifying the situation as a pandemic and failing to harmonize the international response.

Faced with the "cacophony" of Covid-19, "is there a conductor?" Asks Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva in the medical journal The Lancet .

While an international consensus is emerging on the closure of schools, shops and other activities and on the quarantine of entire cities or regions, the WHO does not say precisely when these measures should come into force in each country, nor in which order. "WHO remains surprisingly silent (…) on all these pragmatic questions," observes Mr. Flahault.

– One billion in June –

Meanwhile, the pandemic is accelerating. In an interview published in mid-March by Fortune magazine, WHO special envoy David Nabarro said he expected "a billion cases in June" at the current rate.

WHO declared the international emergency in late January, but it was not until after it called the pandemic on March 11 that global mobilization was launched.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus, however, had already made its nest in Europe, with more than 630 dead in Italy. It has since killed 18,000 worldwide and more than a third of humanity is confined, shutting down entire economic sectors.

Some believe that the WHO has been slow to ring the bell to not offend China, always more active within the various UN bodies.

"Although it is widely recognized that China's response has been the opposite of transparency – the government underestimates the number of cases and intimidates whistleblowers – WHO Director-General applauded Beijing's "transparency", explains Joe Amon, professor of global health at Drexel University, to hooly News.

By doing so, "WHO has given the signal that the epidemic may not be as serious," he said.

– 'No pressures' –

Others, like the NGO Human Rights Watch, said that Beijing's influence has led the WHO to largely ignore the human rights consequences of the drastic measures taken by China.

In Geneva, the boss of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, brushed aside all these criticisms, assuring that he "does not consider anything that comes from member states as pressure".

"To alienate China from the start by pointing out flaws would have been a mistake," deciphered Ann Lindstrand, vaccination specialist at the WHO, interviewed by hooly News.

Several experts also believe that China should have alerted the WHO earlier, when the first cases occurred in November, and not at the end of December. "If we had known then that something was going on, it could have made a huge difference," points out Roland Kao, epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh.

But above all, "WHO cannot force governments to follow its recommendations, because governments have not given it this type of authority," notes Suerie Moon, co-director of the Center for Global Health at the Graduate Institute and development in Geneva.

And if the WHO does not give specific advice publicly to States, its director general, medical specialist in malaria and former Minister of Health and Foreign Affairs of his country, Ethiopia, meets very regularly with the heads of 'State and government.

Moreover, raises Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, those who followed the advice of the WHO, namely to test suspect cases and follow their contacts, "are doing better, like South Korea. "

As summarized by Ms. Moon, the head of the WHO and his agency "work hard to conduct the orchestra, but it is in fact the musicians who do not follow".