An independent panel has found that Chinese officials could have applied public health measures more forcefully in January to curb the initial COVID-19 outbreak, and criticised the World Health Organisation (WHO) for not declaring an international emergency until 30 January. Reuters Health reports that the experts reviewing the global handling of the pandemic, led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, called for reforms to the Geneva-based UN agency.
Their interim report was published hours after the WHO’s top emergency expert, Mike Ryan, said that global deaths from COVID-19 were expected to top 100,000 per week “very soon”.
“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, referring to the initial outbreak of the new disease in the central city of Wuhan, in Hubei province.
As evidence emerged of human-to-human transmission, “in far too many countries, this signal was ignored”, it added.
Specifically, it questioned why the WHO Emergency Committee did not meet until the third week of January and did not declare an international emergency until its second meeting on 30 January.
The panel called for a “global reset” and said that it would make recommendations in a final report to health ministers from the WHO’s 194 member states in May.
According to a BMJ report, the panel said: “The system has struggled to meet the challenge of the pandemic. Global leadership has been exercised weakly. There has been greater reliance than ever before on WHO, and there have been major new needs in relation to coordinated supply, accelerated development of vaccines and other countermeasures, and rapidly deployable financing.”
The panel pointed to several weaknesses in the response, including the absence of effective frameworks to ensure equitable access to supplies, leading to poor stockpiling, over-reliance on single sources, hoarding, and logistical problems. Additionally, it called for real time data gathering and decision-making tools, to enable action to be taken more quickly.
“When there is a potential health threat, countries and WHO must further use the digital tools at their disposal to keep pace with news that spreads instantly on social media and infectious pathogens that spread rapidly through travel,” said Clark. “Detection and alert may have been speedy by the standards of earlier novel pathogens, but viruses move in minutes and hours, rather than in days and weeks.”
Full Reuters Health report
Full BMJ report