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China, WHO Should Have Acted Faster    01/19 06:18

   A panel of experts commissioned by the World Health Organization has 
criticized China and other countries for not moving to stem the initial 
outbreak of the coronavirus earlier and questioned whether the U.N. health 
agency should have labeled it a pandemic sooner.

   GENEVA (AP) -- A panel of experts commissioned by the World Health 
Organization has criticized China and other countries for not moving to stem 
the initial outbreak of the coronavirus earlier and questioned whether the U.N. 
health agency should have labeled it a pandemic sooner.

   In a report issued to the media Monday, the panel led by former Liberian 
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen 
Clark said there were "lost opportunities" to set up basic public health 
measures as early as possible.

   "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," shortly after the coronavirus began sickening clusters of people, it 
said.

   The panel also cited evidence of cases in other countries in late January, 
saying public health containment measures should have been put in place 
immediately in any country with a likely case, adding: "They were not."

   "The reality is that only a minority of countries took full advantage of the 
information available to them to respond to the evidence of an emerging 
pandemic," the panel said.

   The experts also wondered why WHO did not declare a global public health 
emergency --- its highest warning for outbreaks --- sooner. The U.N. health 
agency convened its emergency committee on Jan. 22, but did not characterize 
the emerging pandemic as an international emergency until a week later. At the 
time, WHO said its expert committee was divided on whether a global emergency 
should be declared.

   "One more question is whether it would have helped if WHO used the word 
pandemic earlier than it did," the panel said.

   WHO did not describe the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic until March 11, 
weeks after the virus had begun causing explosive outbreaks in numerous 
continents, meeting WHO's own definition for a flu pandemic.

   As the coronavirus began spreading across the globe, WHO's top experts 
disputed how infectious the virus was, saying it was not as contagious as flu 
and that people without symptoms only rarely spread the virus. Scientists have 
since concluded that COVID-19 transmits even quicker than the flu and that a 
significant proportion of spread is from people who don't appear to be sick.

   Over the past year, WHO has come under heavy criticism for its handling of 
the response to COVID-19. U.S. President Donald Trump slammed the U.N. health 
agency for "colluding" with China to cover up the extent of the initial 
outbreak before halting U.S. funding for WHO and pulling the country out of the 
organization.

   The U.N. health agency bowed to the international pressure at the annual 
assembly of its member states last spring by creating the Independent Panel for 
Pandemic Preparedness and Response, which produced its first report in 
November. The WHO chief asked Johnson Sirleaf and Clark --- who both have 
previous ties to the U.N. agency --- to lead the team.

   An Associated Press investigation in June found WHO repeatedly lauded China 
in public while officials privately complained that Chinese officials stalled 
on sharing critical epidemic information with them.

   Although the panel concluded that "many countries took minimal action to 
prevent the spread (of COVID-19) internally and internationally," it did not 
name specific countries. It also declined to call out WHO for its failure to 
more sharply criticize countries for their missteps instead of lauding 
countries for their response efforts.

   Last month, the author of a withdrawn WHO report into Italy's pandemic 
response said he warned his bosses in May that people could die and the agency 
could suffer "catastrophic" reputational damage if it allowed political 
concerns to suppress the document, according to emails obtained by the AP.

 
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