UN Health Agency Faces Scrutiny as Pandemic Rages in Americas

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, left, meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Jan. 28, 2020. (Naohiko Hatta/Pool Photo via AP, File)

(CN) — With its own response to the pandemic coming under even more scrutiny, the World Health Organization on Wednesday said more than 100,000 new cases of Covid-19 have been reported for each of the past five days, marking an acceleration of the outbreak as the new coronavirus wreaks havoc in the Americas.

At a regular news briefing, the United Nations health agency found itself at the center of questions after the Associated Press reported that the WHO’s top experts complained during private internal conversations about a lack of transparency from China in early January, when the virus was emerging as a potential deadly health threat.

The AP report, based on audio recordings of conversations, undercuts the WHO’s public statements of praise for China in January, when the global health agency said China had been transparent and quick in responding to the new coronavirus.

In its defense, experts point out the WHO does not have enforcement powers and publicly did not want to criticize China in order to coax more information out of the authoritarian government.

In another potential embarrassment, the WHO also said it was resuming testing of hydroxychloroquine only a week after it halted trials to see if it was an effective drug, citing safety concerns.

Its decision to stop testing hydroxychloroquine, an antiviral drug used to treat malaria, was seen as making President Donald Trump look foolish. Trump had been advising the drug for treating Covid-19 and even said last month he was taking it. Initially in March, a prominent but controversial French doctor, Didier Raoult, claimed the drug worked to treat Covid-19 patients.

The reversal by the WHO to resume testing hydroxychloroquine likely was prompted by reports, among them an investigation by the Guardian newspaper, raising doubts about a study that found the drug dangerous for Covid-19 patients.

The Guardian reported that the WHO and national governments halted trials of the malaria drug based on flawed data from Surgisphere, a small U.S. health care analytics company with a science fiction writer and adult-content model among its small staff. The newspaper said two of the world’s leading medical journals – the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine – also published studies that used Surgisphere’s data.

A peer-reviewed study in Lancet on May 22 using the data claimed the antimalarial drug appeared to be leading to a higher mortality rate in Covid-19 patients, but Lancet is now reviewing the study.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said an executive group overseeing a global initiative to test drugs and vaccines for Covid-19 decided to allow trials of hydroxychloroquine to resume after a review of the drug’s safety. The agency did not say specifically why it had reversed course.

In response to the AP report about early frustration among WHO staff with China, the agency declined to answer questions.

People line up for coronavirus tests at a large factory in Wuhan, China, on May 15, 2020. (Chinatopix Via AP)

“Our leadership and staff have worked night and day in compliance with the organization’s rules, regulations, to support, and share information with our member states equally and engage in frank and forthright conversations with government at all levels,” said Dr. Michael Ryan, the WHO head for emergencies.

WHO’s role in handling the outbreak has come under fire from the White House, which has claimed the coronavirus escaped from a virology laboratory in Wuhan and that China hid the outbreak with the help of WHO. The U.S. has not provided evidence to back up claims about the virus escaping the lab. 

The AP report does not bolster the White House’s arguments that the WHO helped hide the outbreak but it also undercuts China’s claims it was open about sharing information. The report reveals that WHO officials were worried they were not getting enough information to make a proper assessment of the risk from the virus.

It has emerged the Chinese government delayed by several days reporting a link between clusters of pneumonia cases with a new coronavirus and took even longer to announce on Jan. 20 that the virus was being transmitted between humans. Still, compared with the coronavirus SARS outbreak between 2002-2003, China was much more open about this epidemic, experts say.

Beijing provided the genome sequence of this new coronavirus by Jan. 12, which was 12 days after it announced a cluster of pneumonias of unknown cause. By comparison, it took months for Chinese scientists to identify the coronavirus that caused SARS, a similar respiratory disease that killed about 800 people worldwide.

On Wednesday, the Johns Hopkins University reported more than 6.4 million cases of the new disease worldwide and more than 382,450 deaths caused by the respiratory disease.

After hitting Europe hard for months, the pandemic is now wreaking the most havoc in the United States and Brazil. Brazil reported a record 1,262 deaths on Wednesday, bringing its death toll to more than 31,199. The United States has reported more than 106,690 deaths.


Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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