Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus OMS (La Presse)

Can We the People Still Trust the WHO?

US and foreign officials have said that President Donald Trump and his top aides are working behind the scenes to sideline the World Health Organisation (WHO), following the 60-day hold on US funding to the WHO implemented last week.

Trump accused the WHO of failing to accurately communicate the severity of the coronavirus outbreak in China, a decision which, according to Trump, led to the most severe outbreak of the virus on US soil. The White House blamed the WHO for a “lack of transparency and chronic mismanagement of the pandemic,” including in its list of complaints the WHO recommendation to keep US borders open following the outbreak in Wuhan.

White House attacks against the WHO have spotlighted institutional problems within the United Nations organisation as a whole.

The Trump-WHO War

Created on April 7, 1948 during a post-war fervor for global consciousness and global health, WHO states that its goal is “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.”

A subsidiary of the United Nations, its self-identified goal is to “detect and respond to acute health emergencies” and protect people from said emergencies by “identifying, mitigating and managing risks”. Its values demand fairness and impartiality towards every nation and global citizen.

WHO Praise for China

A WHO statement released on January 30 of this year praised the “leadership and the political commitment of the very highest levels of Chinese government, their commitment to transparency, and the efforts made to investigate and contain the current outbreak”. Yet accusations of dishonesty to the WHO, and to the global community, have followed China since it revealed the virus outbreak in late December, 2019.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, was accused of showing partiality to China, and taking China’s word as fact, without carrying out investigations of his own. In early February, a week after labelling the outbreak in China a PHEIC (Public Health Emergency of International Concern), Ghebreyesus argued against global travel restrictions.

Travel restrictions against China “can have the effect of increasing fear and stigma, with little public health benefit,” he said.

“Where such measures have been implemented, we urge that they are short in duration, proportionate to the public health risks, and are reconsidered regularly as the situation evolves,” he continued.

Although some experts have argued that Ghebreyesus followed correct procedure, Trump capitalized on the Director-General’s advice not to close borders. On April 19, the Washington Post revealed that, despite Trump’s assertions that he was misled by the WHO, there were more than a dozen American government officials, many of them from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, working in the Geneva headquarters of the WHO, who communicated real-time information of the outbreak in China to Trump.

Furthermore, Trump himself has refused to openly criticize Chinese leader Xi Jinping, with whom he has a personal relationship. In late January, he tweeted: “It will all work out well. On behalf of the American people, I want to thank President Xi.” The United States’ President had also recently thanked China for “their efforts and transparency” in dealing with the pandemic.

‘Get That Vaccine’

Trump’s criticisms against the WHO are hypocritical and self-serving, but they illuminate deep political and financial discrepancies within the international body.

In an interview with CNN last week global business magnate and Microsoft founder Bill Gates was adamant that “China did a lot of things right at the beginning.”

“Like any country where a virus first shows up, they can look back and see where they missed some things,” he continued, while adding that “some countries did respond very quickly and get their testing in place and they avoided the incredible economic pain, and its sad that even the US, that you would have expected to do this well, did it particularly poorly.”

The multibillionaire concluded by asking nations to “to take the great science we have, the fact that we’re in this together, fix testing and treatments and get that vaccine.”

After the United States, Bill Gates is the WHO’s biggest funder. Through three organisations created or funded by Gates: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS and the GAVI Vaccine Alliance, the WHO received more than $474 million in 2017, in contrast to the $401 million provided by the US in the same year.

But Gates is not the only big-source funder of the WHO. Other vaccine-creators and Big Pharma groups funded the WHO this year, including Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Novovax and Nosocomial Vaccine Company.

The precedent was set during the aftermath of the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic when an investigation into the WHO revealed that many scientific experts who had advised the then-WHO Director-General, Dr. Margaret Chan to prematurely declare the H1N1 outbreak a pandemic were funded by Big Pharma and major vaccine-makers. Chan’s decision would lead to billions of premature governmental spending on vaccines that were not needed, because of minimal global infections.

All PHEIC-ed Up

While health officials and scientists continue to debate whether an earlier declaration of a global pandemic would have made a difference to the management of the outbreak, they are adamant that the WHO’s guidelines on declaring a pandemic be overhauled. After the H1N1 pandemic fiasco, the WHO revamped its guidelines, using instead a PHEIC (Public Health Emergency of International Concern) method.

The WHO would not label the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic until March 11, causing confusion among government and health officials worldwide. In response to using the PHEIC label, WHO spokeperson, Tarik Jasaveric said on January 30: “There is no official category (for a pandemic).

“WHO does not use the old system of 6 phases — that ranged from phase 1 (no reports of animal influenza causing human infections) to phase 6 (a pandemic) — that some people may be familiar with from H1N1 in 2009.”

After an emergency committee meeting on January 22, 8 days before the PHEIC declatation, another WHO spokesperson had said: “at the time of the first meeting not all members of the committee felt that there was adequate evidence/information to support recommending declaration of a PHEIC”.

Is Criticism of the WHO Legitimate?

The WHO’s inability to make a definitive declaration on the coronavirus was widely criticized by scientists and health officials. Health officials accused the WHO of misleading them, and misleading the public. Others questioned the political motivations behind the WHO’s lack of transparency.

David Heyman, who worked for the WHO for 22 years told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in February that the form and nature of the PHEIC needs to be reconsidered.

“There’s confusion around the world about the declaration. “What does it really mean and why does it always appear to be delayed rather than on time?”

A recent internal audit also portrayed the organization in a negative light. The audit stated that the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, the division responsible for the global coronavirus outbreak, is chronically underfunded. The program, the audit recounts, has repeatedly posed “severe” and unacceptable” hazard levels to the organisation as a whole.

As of May, 2019, 59 out of 90 recommendations given by internal auditors were uncompleted, including 38 “high-significance” reforms, some of which were accused of suffering “low implementation efforts”.

Even worse, the audit warned of a rise in allegations of internal corruption, detecting multiple schemes aimed at defrauding the organisation of large sums of money.

Can We Still Trust the WHO?

The biggest problem the World Health Organisation faces are corruption and lack of transparency. Dr. Kamradt-Scott, in a recent British Medical Journal article, called for greater transparency in how the WHO decides to what constitutes a public health emergency.

“Until there is increased transparency around [emergency committee] deliberations, questions about irrelevant considerations, undue influence and political interference will continue to arise,” he wrote.

“The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition,” the WHO’s Constitution reads. Yet, political and financial motivations have left the World Health Organisation unwilling to follow its own constitution. As such, we the people, can no longer trust that the WHO has our best interests in mind.