The Current

As 'the worst may be yet to come,' WHO assistant chief stresses global unity with vow to review

World Health Organization Assistant Director-General Peter A. Singer says no country in the world will be safe until all countries have curbed COVID-19. That means a global effort, he says.

After criticism, WHO's 194 member countries agree to independent review

A man walks past a mural in Toronto last week. The assistant director-general of the World Health Organization is urging global co-operation to beat the pandemic. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

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Amid U.S. criticism of the World Health Organization and threats to withdraw funding, the agency's assistant director-general says "the worst may be yet to come," and it will take global unity to beat the pandemic.

"The best way to protect the national security of the United States is actually to ensure that COVID is put in a box in every country in the world," said Peter A. Singer, a Canadian physician who is special adviser to WHO's director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

"This is an issue not just for the humanitarian crises that are unfolding and those most vulnerable people in the world ...  but for the national security of the United States, of Canada, and every country in the world," he told The Current's guest host Rosemary Barton.

"None of us are safe until all of us are safe, and if there's COVID left anywhere, it can travel to any country."

U.S. President Donald Trump has been critical of the WHO's response to the crisis, accusing the organization of promoting China's "disinformation" about the coronavirus outbreak.

The WHO issued the first COVID-19 alert (a cluster of cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, China) on Jan. 4. By the end of that month, the organization labelled the emerging crisis a public health emergency of international concern, before declaring a pandemic on March 11.

"The WHO warned early and often, and it had red sirens and alarm bells raging almost from the first minute we heard about the outbreak," Singer said.

However the organization has been accused of not being critical enough of information shared by China — particularly over the possibility of human-to-human transmission — and whether that acceptance delayed efforts to contain the virus.

In April, Trump suspended U.S. contributions to WHO, and last week tweeted a letter threatening to permanently withdraw from the international body.

Singer said the organization is reviewing the letter, adding that the U.S. has played an important role in WHO for the last 70 years. 

"There always has been a co-operative relationship, and we certainly hope that that will continue," he said.

More than 5.4 million people are confirmed to have contracted the novel coronavirus, with roughly 345,000 deaths globally, and 6,534 deaths in Canada.

Singer said that "even though there's been a tremendous amount of suffering and cases — and sadly, deaths — actually the worst may be yet to come."

"We all really need to work together. It's a global challenge that requires global solutions." 

Review of global response

Last week, WHO's 194 member states unanimously passed a resolution to hold an independent evaluation of the global response to the pandemic, including but not limited to the agency's role.

Singer said that "tough questions are OK," and that WHO reviews its own performance after every crisis, such as following the Ebola outbreak in 2014.

'Worthwhile to examine' WHO response to COVID-19: Dr. Tam

2 years ago
Duration 1:29
In an exclusive interview, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam tells CBC’s chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton that health experts underestimated the global COVID-19 spread and that it would be "worthwhile to examine" the World Health Organization's response.

"They are to be expected in any crisis, in any pandemic. In a sense, they go with the territory," he said.

"It's part of our DNA. We embrace that accountability."

He said it is important to note the review would consider "the performance of WHO, the performance of the whole multilateral system and the performance of countries themselves."

WHO's role in access to vaccine

As scientists around the world race to find a vaccine, there have been concerns about how eventual treatments would be distributed. Last week, WHO's 194 member states endorsed a resolution promising equitable and timely access to a vaccine, when one becomes available.

Singer said working out the "tactical details" of ensuring everyone in the world has access to a safe vaccine is "at the heart of the type of thing WHO does."

"It just shows how essential an organization this is in the global response to a global challenge, because that's a problem ... that cannot be solved by any one country alone."

Peter A. Singer is assistant director-general of the World Health Organization, and special adviser to its chief, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. (Submitted by Peter A. Singer)

Singer said that as the pandemic progresses, he's concerned about the virus gaining a foothold in poorer countries with health-care systems less equipped to fight it.

"What really worries me is when we start to see the first cases in Cox's Bazaar, in Yemen, in these desperate settings, humanitarian settings among migrants and refugees," he said.

"It's very, very worrisome."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Paul MacInnis and Julie Crysler.

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