When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus a pandemic one year ago, it did so only after weeks of resisting the term and maintaining that the highly infectious virus could still be stopped.
A year later, the United Nations agency is still struggling to keep on top of the evolving science of the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) to persuade countries to abandon their nationalistic tendencies and help get vaccines where they’re needed most.
The agency made some costly missteps along the way: It advised people against wearing masks for months and asserted that Covid-19 wasn’t widely spread in the air. It also declined to publicly call out countries — particularly China — for mistakes that senior WHO officials grumbled about privately.
That created some tricky politics that challenged WHO’s credibility and wedged it between two world powers, setting off vociferous Trump administration criticism that the agency is only now emerging from.
President Joe Biden’s support for WHO may provide some much-needed breathing space, but the organization still faces a monumental task ahead as it tries to project some moral authority amid a universal scramble for vaccines that is leaving billions of people unprotected.
“WHO has been a bit behind, being cautious rather than precautionary,” said Gian Luca Burci, a former WHO legal counsel now at Geneva’s Graduate Institute. “At times of panic, of a crisis and so on, maybe being more out on a limb — taking a risk — would have been better.”
WHO waved its first big warning flag on Jan. 30, 2020, by calling the outbreak an international health emergency. But many countries ignored or overlooked the warning.
Only when WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared a “pandemic” six weeks later, on March 11, 2020, did most governments take action, experts said. By then, it was too late, and the virus had reached every continent except Antarctica.
A year later, WHO still appears hamstrung. A WHO-led team that traveled to China in January to investigate the origins of Covid-19 was criticized for failing to dismiss China’s fringe theory that the virus might be spread via tainted frozen seafood.
“Everybody has been wondering why WHO was so praising of China back in January” 2020, Burci said, adding that the praise has come back “to haunt WHO big-time.”
Some experts say WHO’s blunders came at a high price, and it remains too reliant on iron-clad science instead of taking calculated risks to keep people safer — whether on strategies like mask-wearing or whether Covid-19 is often spread through the air.
“Without a doubt, WHO’s failure to endorse masks earlier cost lives,” said Dr. Trish Greenhalgh, a professor of primary care health sciences at Oxford University who sits on several WHO expert committees. Not until June 2020 did WHO advise people to regularly wear masks, long after other health agencies and numerous countries did so.
Greenhalgh said she was less interested in asking WHO to atone for past errors than revising its policies going forward. In October, she wrote to the head of a key WHO committee on infection control, raising concerns about the lack of expertise among some members. She never received a response.
“This scandal is not just in the past. It’s in the present and escalating into the future,” Greenhalgh said.
Raymond Tellier, an associate professor at Canada’s McGill University who specializes in coronaviruses, said WHO’s continued reluctance to acknowledge how often Covid-19 is spread in the air could prove more dangerous with the arrival of new virus variants first identified in Britain and South Africa that are even more transmissible.
“If WHO’s recommendations are not strong enough, we could see the pandemic go on much longer,” he said.
With several licensed vaccines, WHO is now working to ensure that people in the world’s poorest countries receive doses through the COVAX initiative, which is aimed at ensuring poor countries get Covid-19 vaccines.
But COVAX has only a fraction of the 2 billion vaccines it is hoping to deliver by the end of the year. Some countries that have waited months for shots have grown impatient, opting to sign their own private deals for quicker vaccine access.