Member states okay probe into WHO handling of pandemic, virus origin

Faced with withering criticism from US, global health assembly approves nonbinding EU-proposed resolution to set up ‘impartial, comprehensive evaluation’ of UN body

A woman wearing a protective facemask walks underneath a sign at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, May 12, 2020. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)
A woman wearing a protective facemask walks underneath a sign at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, May 12, 2020. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)

GENEVA, Switzerland (AFP) — World Health Organization member states agreed Tuesday to an independent probe into the UN agency’s coronavirus response as US criticism mounted over its handling of the pandemic.

They also agreed to push for equitable access for any treatments or vaccines developed against COVID-19, and urged an international probe into the origins of the new virus.

Countries taking part in the WHO’s annual assembly, being held virtually for the first time, adopted a resolution by consensus urging a joint response to the crisis.

The resolution, tabled by the European Union, called for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the origin and international response to the pandemic, which has so far infected more than 4.8 million people and killed more than 318,000.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, speaks during a news conference on updates regarding the novel coronavirus, at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP, file)

It said the investigation should include a probe of “the actions of WHO and their time-lines pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and health chief Stella Kyriakides issued a joint statement stressing that “an independent investigation of how this pandemic started and spread will be important… to strengthen our global preparedness for the future.”

‘Puppet of China’

The decision came after Washington chastised the WHO on Monday’s first day of the assembly and lashed out further against China over its role in the outbreak.

US President Donald Trump threatened late Monday to pull the United States out of the WHO, accusing it of botching the global coronavirus response and of being a “puppet of China.”

His comments, which drew a harsh rebuke from Beijing, came after his health secretary Alex Azar earlier in the day insisted the WHO’s “failure” to obtain and provide vital information on COVID-19 had proved deadly.

“We must be frank about one of the primary reasons this outbreak spun out of control: there was a failure by this organization to obtain the information that the world needed, and that failure cost many lives,” Azar said in a video address to the WHO’s assembly.

Tedros Adhanom, director general of the World Health Organization, left, meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, January 28, 2020. (Naohiko Hatta/Pool Photo via AP)

He demanded an independent review of “every aspect” of the UN health agency’s response to the pandemic.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus welcomed the call for a review, stressing Tuesday that he would “initiate such an evaluation at the earliest appropriate moment.”

But he insisted there was no need for a dramatic overhaul of the organization, urging instead the global community to “strengthen, implement and finance the systems and organizations it has — including WHO.”

Trump has been locked in a bitter spat with Beijing, alleging it covered up the initial outbreak in China late last year before the disease unleashed death and economic devastation across the planet.

With more fatalities and cases in the United States than any other country by far, the US president has blamed the WHO for not doing enough to combat its initial spread.

Medical workers putting on protective gear at the beginning of their shift at the emergency field hospital run by Samaritan’s Purse and Mount Sinai Health System in Central Park on April 8, 2020 in New York. (Misha Friedman/Getty Images/AFP)

Trump had already suspended US funding to the UN body, and after his White House comments Monday, he tweeted a letter he had sent to Tedros threatening to make that freeze permanent and withdraw from the organization.

Beijing said Tuesday that Washington was “shirking responsibility.”

Vaccine access

Tuesday’s resolution at the WHO assembly — which is not binding and mentioned no countries by name — also called for nations to commit to ensuring “transparent, equitable and timely access” to any treatments or vaccines developed against COVID-19.

The United States did not break with the consensus on Tuesday’s resolution as some had feared it might, but it did choose to disassociate itself from several paragraphs of the resolution, mainly focused on the vaccine access issue.

In a written statement, it said it feared that the language used did not “adequately capture” the terms of carefully-negotiated international trade agreements, and could “negatively affect countries’ abilities to incentivize new drug development and expand access to medicines.”

Pedestrians wearing face masks walk along a business street in Beijing on May 19, 2020. (Wang Zhao/AFP)

International aid group Oxfam slammed the US position, and warned the resolution did not go far enough to ensure equitable access to a future vaccine.

“We needed the World Health Assembly to unite behind a ‘people’s vaccine,’ not a Trump administration seeking scapegoats for a pandemic it has mishandled from the start,” it said in a statement.

Washington did meanwhile “applaud” the resolution’s call for an independent review of the COVID-19 response.

It praised the resolution for taking on the controversial issue of the origin of the virus, requesting that WHO help investigate “the route of introduction to the human population.”

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