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Panel cites 'early failings' in virus response

An expert panel faulted WHO along with China and other nations in a report that found numerous "lost opportunities" to try to head off the pandemic.

Medical workers with coronavirus patients in Wuhan, China on February 6, 2020
Medical workers with coronavirus patients in Wuhan, China on February 6, 2020 (AN/China Daily)

GENEVA (AN) — A World Health Organization-commissioned expert panel faulted the international organization along with China and other nations in a report on Tuesday that found numerous "lost opportunities" early on to try to head off the coronavirus pandemic.

WHO and other health authorities around the world could have issued "more timely and stronger warnings of the potential for human-to-human transmission" of COVID-19, according to WHO's Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, led by former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark.

"The world needs to do two things: act more decisively now to stem the pandemic and, fundamentally, the reset preparedness and response systems to help insure that this can't happen again," Clark said. "And those two points are at the core of the panel's progress report."

Sirleaf said the panel was not seeking to assign blame but rather to assess what could be improved and to make concrete recommendations for improved responses in the future.

"Our report makes it clear that the world is more reliant on an effective WHO than ever before," she added. "While member states turned to the WHO for leadership, they have kept it underpowered and under-resourced to do the job expected of it. This is an issue the panel is looking at."

Dearth of 'forceful' measures

The 13-member panel's second progress report to WHO's governing body, the 194-nation World Health Assembly, said "there were lost opportunities to apply basic public health measures at the earliest opportunity" after the coronavirus was first detected at Wuhan, China in late December.

"The panel is aware of emerging reports of novel coronaviruses possibly being evident in other countries as well, and the panel will continue to monitor the scientific developments associated with the ongoing investigations and sampling from this time," it said in the 34-page progress report.

"What is clear to the panel is that public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China in January," the report said. "It is also clear to the panel that there was evidence of cases in a number of countries by the end of January 2020. Public health containment measures should have been implemented immediately in any country with a likely case. They were not."

The panel was set up by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the direction of the World Health Assembly, which unanimously approved a resolution calling for an independent review of the WHO-led international response to the pandemic. The resolution called on Tedros to carry out an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation" focused on mistakes made and lessons to be learned.