COVID-19 Reveals Urgent Need to Strengthen the World Health Organization

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From the time China reported a novel coronavirus to the World Health Organization (WHO) on December 31, 2019, it took barely 4 months to become a pandemic, killing hundreds of thousands, and growing daily. It is now clear that the novel severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) had been circulating in Wuhan, China, for weeks before China reported it to the WHO, and that authorities hid information. China maintained SARS-CoV-2 was not readily transmissible between humans. The WHO published China’s data, but without independently verifying their accuracy.

President Trump subsequently blamed the WHO for its slow and “China-centric” response. On April 14, 2020, he announced a suspension of US voluntary contributions to the agency.

Although the WHO was unable to verify the Chinese data, it was proactive, including widely sharing the genomic sequencing of the virus with international scientists. On January 30, 2020, the WHO declared coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) a global health emergency, urging rigorous containment including testing, contract tracing, and quarantine. Broad criticism of the organization is unfounded, and is particularly damaging because the pandemic is poised to deeply affect sub-Saharan Africa. That said, legitimate concerns about the WHO include its reluctance to insist China allow a robust WHO team on the ground and its praising of China’s transparency.

The crisis now unfolding could also become a historic opportunity to strengthen the WHO. Reforms must start with recognizing the global public good achieved by the WHO.

Publication Citation

Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Forum, Vol. 323, No. 23, Pp. 2362-2362.