Global push for inquiry into Covid-19 response

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

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AFP

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Dr Tedros and the WHO have faced criticism for their handling of the pandemic

Global health leaders are set to call for a review into the international response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Envoys from 194 of the World Health Organization’s member states will meet virtually on Monday and Tuesday for the 73rd assembly of the UN body.

The coronavirus pandemic will take centre stage.

Questions will be raised over how the WHO and its members handled the spread of the virus, which has killed more than 300,000 people worldwide.

More than 4.5 million people have been infected since it emerged in China in December. The meeting comes amid recriminations between China and the US over the virus.

Each year, countries come together at the World Health Assembly to review the work of the UN’s health agency, and set its priorities for the coming year.

The European Union is expected to lead an international call, alongside countries including the UK, Australia and New Zealand, for an inquiry into how the global pandemic has been handled and what lessons can be learned.

EU spokeswoman Virginie Battu-Henriksson said several key questions needed to be answered as part of any review.

“How did this pandemic spread? What is the epidemiology behind it? All this is absolutely crucial for us going forward to avoid another pandemic of this kind.”

But, she said, now was not the time to enter “any sort of blame game”.

The World Health Organization is likely to come under a lot of pressure over its handling of the pandemic.

WHO spokeswoman Dr Margaret Harris said: “The World Health Assembly is always the time for a lot of scrutiny [of the WHO].”

But, she added, the organisation would remain “laser focused” on working to lead the overall response, and the science and the solutions for this pandemic.

Geopolitical fight

The WHO is supposed to represent the interests of all its member states equally, but it has found itself at the centre of a political battle between China and the US.

It culminated last month with the US – the WHO’s largest single donor – pulling funding to the agency after President Trump accused it of mismanaging and covering up the spread of the virus in China.

The UN agency is an advisory body and doesn’t have the power to enforce or compel countries to share information.

The assembly is also expected to hear calls to give the WHO more powers, which would allow inspectors to go into countries at the start of outbreaks, and carry out independent investigations.

Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, said: “The big challenge with outbreaks is that no country wants to have one.

“Every country wants to deny it’s there, and every country wants to play down deaths.”

Countries are currently required to notify the WHO of emerging diseases in their countries as part of the International Health Regulations. These suggested powers would go a step further.

Prof Sridhar added: “If the the WHO can send in a technical international mission whose job is not to blame or point fingers, but actually identify the origin of an outbreak, and provide best advice to other countries that could be a positive way to prevent outbreaks.”

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