'21st century Chernobyl moment': WHO panel fails to address virus origin

New DelhiEdited By: Gravitas deskUpdated: May 14, 2021, 11:33 AM IST

Tedros Ghebreyesus Photograph:(AFP)

Story highlights

The report delivers a lengthy and detailed explanation of how the pandemic began, without naming any country or leader. The panel focused on how the outbreak became global

One year back, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had appointed an independent panel to probe what went wrong and how the outbreak in Wuhan turned into a global catastrophe.


The panel was supposed to deliver an impartial, independent and comprehensive review of the global response to the pandemic. They began their work in September 2020.

Now it is May 2021. Their report is out and it does not blame China. It does not name China for its coverups and it does not call out China for the crackdown on whistleblowers.

It does not even question China's delay in reporting the outbreak in Wuhan.

The report delivers a lengthy and detailed explanation of how the pandemic began, without naming any country or leader. It should be compulsory reading on how to sit on the fence if there is such a course.

A panel created by the WHO wrote the report and it is different from the panel that investigated the origins of the pandemic.

The panel focused on how the outbreak became global. It was led by two individuals - Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former president of Liberia.

The report, called 'COVID-19: make it the last pandemic', has 86 pages. It will be presented to world leaders next week when they meet for the Global Health Summit, an event hosted by the G20.

The report describes this pandemic as a "21st-century Chernobyl moment" that could have been avoided. 

Three failures created what it called a "dangerous cocktail". It includes poor choices by global leaders, unwillingness to tackle inequalities and lack of coordination which, put together, allowed the pandemic to turn into a "catastrophic human crisis".

However, the report doesn't offer any real answers on how the crisis began in Wuhan. It tries to reconstruct a chronology of events. The emergence of the virus was characterised by a mix of some early and rapid action but also by delay, hesitation and denial.

The investigation has been based on a review of WHO documents and interviews. It found that China had started sequencing the virus well before it even informed the WHO that they had an outbreak. However, the report does not name anyone in China - agency or official.

The investigators identified two distinct failures of the world health body - it waited too long to declare the outbreak an emergency. 
The report says the WHO should have raised an alarm earlier instead of waiting till January 30 last year.

The WHO discouraged travel bans initially. The report says this advice constrained rapid action to stop the growing infections. 

“Whilst the virus was spreading, information was being hoarded and decisions were delayed whilst waiting on responses to laborious exchanges of official emails," Helen Clark, co-chair of the independent panel for pandemic preparedness and response, said.

"As information began to arrive at the WHO, the organisation was not sufficiently empowered to investigate, validate and then confirm at speed that the dangerous outbreak was occurring,” Clark added.

The report fails to assign any blame, with nothing on how Dr Tedros was praising China's response in the early days. 

The report does mention the conflicting advise on human to human transmission.

However, it sounds like the panel is giving some retrospective advise to the WHO. It says the WHO should have told countries to "assume" that human-to-human transmission was occurring.

It admits the WHO dropped the ball on more occasions than one. An emergency could have been declared early but member states too didn't take the threat seriously.

“We believe, however, that even with the current systems, a public health emergency of international concern could have been declared by at least January 22," Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, co-chair of the independent panel for pandemic preparedness and response, said.

Even following the declaration on January 30, February was a wasted month.

Despite clear warnings, far too many countries believed it would not affect them, and they adopted in effect a wait and watch approach.

The report goes on to recommend major reforms to the WHO. It should be empowered to swiftly conduct investigations into new outbreaks in any country. 

It calls for the creation of a new global health threat council and suggests that the WHO director-general should serve only a single seven-year term in office and incumbents shouldn't be allowed to run for re-election.

According to the international federation of journalists, China is now using the pandemic to boost its global profile. The report states it has gathered data from 54 journalist unions in 50 countries and territories and more than half said coverage of China in their country is now more positive.

In some countries, China has become the source of the most accurate information about the Wuhan virus. After unleashing a virus on the world, Beijing is controlling the global narrative on the pandemic.