WHO launches independent review of the international response to the Covid-19 pandemic

The World Health Organization announced an independent review of the international response to the Covid-19 pandemic on Thursday, an action the organization’s member states tasked it with earlier this year.

Former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand, will lead the review, the WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, announced in Geneva.

“This is a time for self-reflection, to look at the world we live in and to find ways to strengthen our collaboration as we work together to save lives and bring this pandemic under control,” said Tedros, who noted that the Covid-19 pandemic had “exploited the inequalities in our health systems and the schisms in our societies.”

Operating procedures for the process Sirleaf and Clark will lead — called the independent panel for pandemic preparedness and response — will be established in consultation with WHO member states. Countries can propose potential members of the panel.

It is expected to deliver an interim report in November and a “substantive” report to the World Health Assembly — the WHO’s governing body — at its 2021 meeting next May. The WHA called for the independent review at this year’s session, which was virtual and abbreviated, because of the pandemic. It is currently scheduled to resume in November.

The announcement comes just days after the United States served formal notice it will withdraw from the WHO next year, following through on a decision announced by President Trump in late May. Trump cited the WHO’s handling of the pandemic as his reason for ending the U.S.’s membership in the WHO, which will go into effect July 6, 2021 — if he is re-elected. Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate, has said he will rescind the action if he is elected.

Tedros said that while in the past, independent evaluation commissions set up by the WHO have used the agency’s staff as support, this group should have its own independent secretariat.

It will be important that the panel is independent and its review rigorous, said Tom Bollyky, director of global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“At the end of the day, this will be about mobilizing global support around a shared vision of pandemic preparedness and response in the future and a credible, independent, and rigorous review is the one most likely to do that,” he said.

Amanda Glassman, executive vice president of the Center for Global Development, applauded the choices of the co-chairs of the commission, saying it signals the process must be seen an issue involving heads of state, rather than a normal review by academics or members of the global health leadership community.

It will be important to have a range of expertise on the panel, Glassman said. She suggested the committee should include people from the intelligence and military communities, as well as economists and individuals with experience in independent global oversight. “It will be important to include known critics [of WHO], not just supporters,” she said in an email.

Tedros said that while the independent panel is doing its work, there are already things the WHO can act on, including changing the WHO’s emergency alert tool, which allows the agency to declare public health emergencies of international concern or PHEICs. The Covid-19 outbreak was declared a PHEIC on Jan. 30, about a week after China took the unprecedented step of placing cities across Hunan province on lockdown to slow spread of the new virus.

It has been clear for some time Tedros hasn’t found PHEICs as useful a tool as the experts who added them to the update of the International Health Regulations in 2005 intended. On Thursday, he called changing the system “low-hanging fruit” and said the WHO is already working on it.

Bollyky said there is mounting support for dropping the current binary approach — a health problem either is or isn’t a global health threat — to a multi-tiered alert system. He noted, however, that such a system would have been unlikely to have led to more rapid and effective responses from governments when the SARS-CoV-2 virus began to spread around the world earlier this year.

“It’s not clear to me why that would have made any difference in this particular circumstance, given that with all the information emerging, the highest alarm that the WHO could issue wasn’t taken seriously,” Bollyky said.

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