An independent panel has said Chinese officials could have applied public health measures more forcefully a year ago to curb Covid-19, and criticised the World Health Organization (WHO) for delays in declaring an international emergency, as the US called on China to allow WHO investigators to interview care workers, patients and lab workers in Wuhan.
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 global deaths from Covid 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 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’s 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.
“Although the term pandemic is neither used nor defined in the international health regulations (2005), its use does serve to focus attention on the gravity of a health event. It was not until 11 March that WHO used the term,” the report said.
“The global pandemic alert system is not fit for purpose,” it said. “The World Health Organization has been underpowered to do the job.”
In the US, a political row is brewing after Donald Trump, with less than two days left of his presidency, announced he would rescind Covid entry bans on most non-US citizens arriving from Brazil and much of Europe, including the UK, effective 26 January, two officials briefed on the matter told Reuters.
The restrictions are set to end on the same day that new Covid-19 test requirements take effect for all international visitors.
But a spokesperson for Joe Biden, who will be inaugurated as the new US president on Wednesday, said the new administration “does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26”. “In fact,” wrote Jen Psaki on Twitter, “we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of Covid-19.”
Psaki added: “With the pandemic worsening, and more contagious variants emerging around the world, this is not the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel.”
The United States also called on China on Monday to allow the WHO’s expert team of investigators, who are in China to study the origins of the pandemic, to interview “care givers, former patients and lab workers” in the central city of Wuhan.
The team of WHO-led independent experts is holding teleconferences with Chinese counterparts during a two-week quarantine before starting work on the ground.
Garrett Grigsby of the Department of Health and Human Services, who heads the US delegation, said China should share all scientific studies of animal, human and environmental samples taken from a market in Wuhan, where the SARS-CoV-2 virus is believed to have emerged in late 2019.
Comparative analysis of such genetic data would help to “look for overlap and potential sources” of the outbreak that sparked the pandemic, he told the WHO’s executive board. “We have a solemn duty to ensure that this critical investigation is credible and is conducted objectively and transparently,” said Grigsby, who also referred to virus variants found in Britain, South Africa and Brazil.
Sun Yang, the director general of the health emergency response office of China’s National Health Commission, told the board: “The virus origin studies are of a scientific nature. It needs coordination, cooperation. We must stop any political pressure.”
Australia’s delegation also called for the WHO team to have access to “relevant data, information and key locations”.
The WHO’s Ryan told reporters last Friday there would be “no guarantees of answers” regarding the pandemic’s origins. “It is a difficult task to fully establish the origins and sometimes it can take two or three or four attempts to be able to do that in different settings.”
Under Trump, the US has accused the WHO of being “China-centric”, which the agency denies. European countries led by France and Germany have pushed to address the WHO’s shortcomings on funding, governance and legal powers.
The panel called for a “global reset” and said it would make recommendations in a final report to health ministers from the WHO’s 194 member states in May.
The director general of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, announced in July that the UN body was setting up the Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response to review its conduct and that of governments.
At the time, Tedros hailed Clark and Johnson Sirleaf as “strong minded and independent leaders”.