World

WHO chief promises review of coronavirus response as China defends its performance

World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday an independent evaluation of the global coronavirus response would be launched as soon as possible, and China backed such a review.

But Donald Trump's health secretary says WHO has 'spun out of control' and must change

World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus promised today during a virtual meeting of the WHO's decision-making body, the World Health Assembly, that there will be an independent review of its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

The head of the World Health Organization said on Monday an independent evaluation of the global coronavirus response would be launched as soon as possible, and China backed such a review.

Director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made his promise during a virtual two-day meeting of the WHO's decision-making body, the World Health Assembly, at which Chinese President Xi Jinping defended his country's own handling of the crisis.

U.S. President Donald Trump has fiercely questioned the WHO's performance during the pandemic and led international criticism of China's handling of the early stages of the crisis.

Tedros, who has always promised a post-pandemic review, said it would come "at the earliest appropriate moment" and would provide recommendations for future preparedness.

"We all have lessons to learn from the pandemic," Tedros said. "Every country and every organization must examine its response and learn from its experience. WHO is committed to transparency, accountability and continuous improvement." 

The review must encompass responsibility of "all actors in good faith," he said.

According to Tedros, preliminary tests in some countries showed that, at most, 20 per cent of populations had contracted the disease. Most places, he said, that figure is less than 10 per cent.

But, Tedros said, "the risk remains high and we have a long road to travel."

Alex Azar, Trump's health secretary, told the assembly that the pandemic had "spun out of control" in great part due to a costly "failure" by the World Health Organization, and called for a more effective WHO.

"There was a failure by this organization to obtain the information that the world needed, and that failure cost many lives," he said.

Azar, without naming China, said: "In an apparent attempt to conceal this outbreak, at least one member state made a mockery of their transparency obligations, with tremendous costs for the entire world.

"We saw that WHO failed at its core mission of information sharing and transparency when member states do not act in good faith. This cannot ever happen again."

Pompeo praises Taiwan

Not long before Azar spoke, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised Taiwan for its response to the pandemic, for mounting "one of the most successful efforts to contain COVID to date."

"Transparent, vibrant and innovative democracies like Taiwan always respond faster and more effectively to pandemics than authoritarian regimes," he said.

The United States has repeatedly clashed with China over its refusal to allow Taiwan full access to WHO, helping to further fuel tension between Washington and Beijing.

WATCH l Push for inquiry 'significant' amid U.S.-China friction:

Lynette Ong of the Munk School of Global Affairs says the world needs China and the U.S. to work together to fight the coronavirus pandemic. 6:37

Taiwan attended the assembly as an observer from 2009 to 2016, but China blocked further participation after the election of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, who China views as a separatist — an accusation she rejects.

Taiwan had been lobbying to take part in a meeting later on Monday at the assembly, to no avail.

Taiwan has said it wanted to share with the world its successful experience at fighting the coronavirus, having only reported 440 cases and seven deaths thanks to early detection and prevention work.

"Despite all our efforts and an unprecedented level of international support, Taiwan has not received an invitation to take part," Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told reporters.

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs expresses deep regret and strong dissatisfaction that the World Health Organization Secretariat has yielded to pressure from the Chinese government and continues to disregard the right to health of the 23 million people of Taiwan."

China pledges $2B

China's Xi on Monday pledged $2 billion US over the next two years to help deal with COVID-19, especially in developing countries. The amount almost matches the WHO's entire annual program budget for last year, and more than compensates for Trump's freeze of U.S. payments worth about $400 million a year.

In Washington, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Ullyot called Beijing's pledge "a token to distract from calls from a growing number of nations demanding accountability for the Chinese government's failure to … warn the world of what was coming."

China has previously opposed calls for a review of the origin and spread of the coronavirus, but Xi signalled Beijing would be amenable to an impartial evaluation of the global response once the pandemic is brought under control.

U.S. President Donald Trump pictured with Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on May 14 in Washington. The Trump administration has accused the World Health Organization of being too close to China. (Alex Brandon/The Associated Press)

"This work needs a scientific and professional attitude, and needs to be led by the WHO. And the principles of objectivity and fairness need to be upheld," he told the meeting via video.

Calling the pandemic the most serious global public health emergency since the end of the Second World War, Xi said: "All along we have acted with openness and transparency and responsibility."

Wildlife origins 

A resolution drafted by the European Union called for an independent evaluation of the WHO's performance, and appeared to have won consensus backing among the health body's 194 member states.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said the WHO must become "more independent from external interference" and that its role in "leading and co-ordination" must be strengthened.

A draft of the EU resolution made no mention of China. The draft text urges Tedros to initiate an "impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation" of the response to COVID-19 under the WHO "at the earliest appropriate moment."

WHO and most experts say the virus is believed to have emerged in a market selling wildlife in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. Pompeo said this month there is "a significant amount of evidence" the virus came from a laboratory in Wuhan, a charge China rejects.

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