• Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

WHO reform is needed: public health experts

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Speaking at the Reuters Next conference, British epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, Sweden's state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell and Chikwe Ihekweazu, the head of Nigeria's Centre for Disease Control, said the United Nations health agency had faced difficulties in leading a global response to the pandemic.

"We need to reflect on how the global architecture can be improved," Ferguson said, including a need to rethink "the governance of organizations such as the WHO."

"One of the challenges it faces is being truly independent," he said. "Typically, it is influenced by big states. Historically that has been western countries like the United States, and now it's very much China as well - and that can sometimes prove challenging in situations like the last year."

Many governments around the world, including in the United States, Australia and the European Union, have called for the WHO to be reformed or restructured amid criticism of its response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The WHO has been rocked by a decision last year by the United States to halt its funding and has been accused of being too close to China in the first phase of the pandemic, when critics say Beijing was slow in sharing crucial information on the new coronavirus which first appeared in the city of Wuhan.

The WHO has repeatedly dismissed such accusations, and China insists it has been open and transparent.

Speaking on the same Reuters Next conference panel, Sweden's Tegnell said that in his view, "this crisis compared to many of the crises in the last decade has become a lot more politicized."

"That has made the WHO's role a lot more difficult," he said.

Nigeria's Ihekweazu said he hoped the year ahead would see the world work together more closely to tackle the pandemic, particularly in improving equitable access to vaccines designed to prevent the disease.

Video Transcript

NEIL FERGUSON: I mean, I think we need to probably reflect on how the global architecture can be improved. I mean, there could have been more global perspective towards many aspects of how the world has responded to this pandemic. And I think that's partly down to individual countries to decide, do they want to commit to such multilateralism?

Partly, we do need to rethink a little bit the governance of organizations such as WHO. One of the challenges it faces is being truly independent. I mean, typically, it is influenced by big states. Historically, that's been Western countries, the United States, now very much China as well. And that can sometimes prove challenging in situations like the last year.

ANDERS TEGNELL: This crisis compared to many of the crises, in at least the last decades, have become a lot more politicized than before. And I think that has made WHO's role a lot more difficult than it has been. And they have been forced to sort of handle this political spectrum at the same time as handling the technical one. And I think that really puts challenges on them that's not being completely situated to handle.

On the other hand, I and Sweden, definitely we really believe that WHO is hugely important. But I think there can be improvements after this. And I think we're going to have those discussions again, what exactly will be the WHO role in this.

CHIKWE IHEKWEAZU: I just looked at the last map of countries where vaccines have been given already. Looking at it from a global perspective, it's heartbreaking. But it's early days. It's January.

We'll have to see how the year pans out and whether we will look back to this year as a year in which we take pride in as global citizens, in terms of access to vaccines, or a year where we will look back and wonder, gosh, the divisions of the '50s, and '60s, and '70s are still there. And they're just defined by different means.