GENEVA (AP) – An expert group commissioned by the World Health Organization has criticized China and other countries for failing to take steps to stop the original outbreak of coronavirus earlier, and questioned whether the UN health agency should have identified it as pandemic earlier.
In a report released to the media on Monday, the group, led by former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, said there were “lost opportunities” to introduce basic public health measures as early as possible.
“What is clear to the panel is that public health measures could be implemented more strongly by local and national health authorities in China in January,”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chuning disputed whether China was reacting too slowly.
“As the first country to raise a global alert against the epidemic, China has made immediate and decisive decisions,” she said, noting that Wuhan – where the first human cases were identified – had been blocked within three weeks of the outbreak. .
“All countries, not just China, but the United States, Britain, Japan or other countries, must try to do better,” Hua said.
During a press briefing on Tuesday, Johnson Sirleaf said it was up to the parties to want to review the WHO to give it more power to eliminate the outbreaks, saying the organization was also limited by a lack of funding.
“The bottom line is that the WHO has no power to impose anything,” she said. “All he can do is ask to be invited.”
Last week, an international team of WHO-led scientists arrived in Wuhan to study the pandemic’s animal origins after months of political controversy to obtain China’s approval for the probe.
The panel also cited evidence of cases in other countries in late January, saying that measures to limit public health should be introduced immediately in each country with the probable case, adding: “They were not.”
Experts also wondered why the WHO had not previously declared a global public health emergency – its highest warning of outbreaks. The UN Health Agency convened its emergency committee on January 22, but did not characterize the emerging pandemic as an international emergency until a week later.
“Another question is whether it would help if the WHO used the word pandemic earlier,” the panel said.
The WHO did not describe the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic until March 11, weeks after the virus began causing outbreaks on many continents, in line with the WHO’s own definition of an influenza pandemic.
When the coronavirus began to spread around the world, the best WHO experts disputed how contagious the virus was, saying it was not as contagious as the flu and that asymptomatic people rarely spread the virus. Since then, scientists have concluded that COVID-19 is transmitted even faster than the flu and that a significant portion of the spread is from people who do not appear ill.
Over the past year, the WHO has come under heavy criticism for failing to respond to COVID-19. US President Donald Trump has reassured the UN health agency that he “negotiated” with China to cover up the extent of the initial outbreak before stopping US funding for the WHO and withdrawing the country from the organization.
The UN Health Agency bowed to international pressure at the annual assembly of member states last spring by setting up an Independent Pandemic Preparedness and Response Commission. The head of the WHO has appointed Johnson Sirleaf and Clark – both of whom have previous ties to the UN agency – to lead the team.
Associated Press investigation found in June that the WHO had repeatedly publicly praised China, while officials complained that Chinese officials were reluctant to share critical information about the epidemic with them.
Although the commission concluded that “many countries have taken minimal action to prevent the spread (of COVID-19) domestically and internationally”, it did not name specific countries. He also refused to call on the WHO for its inability to sharply criticize states for their wrong steps, instead of praising the parties for their response efforts.
Last month, the author of the withdrawn WHO report on Italy’s pandemic response said he had warned his bosses in May that people could die and the agency could suffer “catastrophic” damage to its reputation if it allowed political concerns to stifle the document, according to emails received from AP.
To date, the pandemic has killed more than 2 million people worldwide.
AP American writer Maria Cheng reported from Toronto. Ken Moritsugu of Beijing contributed to this report.
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