(AP) — A panel of experts commissioned by the World Health Organization has criticized China and other countries for not moving to stem the initial outbreak of the coronavirus earlier and questioned whether the U.N. health agency should have labeled it a pandemic sooner.
In a report issued to the media Monday, the panel led by former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said there were “lost opportunities” to adopt basic public health measures as early as possible.
“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,” it said.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying disputed whether China had reacted too slowly.
“As the first country to sound the global alarm against the epidemic, China made immediate and decisive decisions,” she said, pointing out that Wuhan — where the first human cases were identified — was locked down within three weeks of the outbreak starting.
“All countries, not only China, but also the U.S., the U.K., Japan or any other countries, should all try to do better,” Hua said.
An Associated Press investigation in June found WHO repeatedly lauded China in public while officials privately complained that Chinese officials stalled on sharing critical epidemic information with them, including the new virus’ genetic sequence. The story noted that WHO didn’t have any enforcement powers.
At a press briefing on Tuesday, Johnson Sirleaf said it was up to countries whether they wanted to overhaul WHO to accord it more authority to stamp out outbreaks, saying the organization was also constrained by its lack of funding.
“The bottom line is WHO has no powers to enforce anything,” she said. “All it can do is ask to be invited in.”
Last week, an international team of WHO-led scientists arrived in Wuhan to research the animal origins of the pandemic after months of political wrangling to secure China’s approval for the probe.
The panel also cited evidence of COVID-19 cases in other countries in late January, saying public health containment measures should have been put in place immediately in any country with a likely case, adding: “They were not.”
The experts also wondered why WHO did not declare a global public health emergency — its highest warning for outbreaks — sooner. The U.N. health agency convened its emergency committee on Jan. 22, but did not characterize the emerging pandemic as an international emergency until a week later.