WHO forced to defend contribution to tackling COVID-19 after blistering attack by MEP

ID member Silvia Sardone launched an attack on the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom, when he spoke to a parliamentary committee via video link.
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By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

30 Jun 2020

Sardone, who was in Parliament for the debate, told the WHO chief she did not believe the EU and others should “continue to send billions” to help fund the global health organisation.

She was highly critical of the WHO’s response to the crisis, echoing similar much-publicised criticism by US President Trump who has also said the US will no longer continue its funding to WHO.

Sardone told Adhanom that the WHO had constantly given “misleading” advice throughout the crisis about, for example, the risk posed by travelling and the wearing of masks.

She said this advice from WHO had spread confusion among the public and “may have actually cost lives.”

She then asked him, “Do you feel guilty about this?”

“Lots of mistakes have been made and warnings have not been taken seriously. Nor were we prepared on the economic front. We are now paid a dire price for this” Nils Torvalds MEP

After her verbal attack on both the WHO and Adhanom, Sardone got out of her seat and walked to the committee chair, French member Pascal Canfin, and handed him a letter.

She said to Adhanom, “This is your resignation letter which you should sign.”

Adhanom was appearing before the Committee for Environment, Public Health and Food Safety on the fight against COVID-19 and the global response to it, including WHO actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to develop treatments and vaccines.

Other Committee members, albeit in less colourful language, also asked the WHO chief about what some said was “confusing” advice about travel during the height of the pandemic.

Finnish RE member Nils Torvalds said, “Lots of mistakes have been made and warnings have not been taken seriously. Nor were we prepared on the economic front. We are now paid a dire price for this.”

The WHO chief later attempted to rebuff the fierce criticism but also admitted the organisation had to “learn from any mistakes” during the crisis.

He also warned that, despite falling cases in Europe, “this was not the time” to lower the guard against the virus.

He said that globally there had been 4 million new cases of Coronavirus registered in the last month alone and predicted this figure would soon reach 10 million.

Adhanom said WHO’s travel advice was based on International Health Regulations, adding, “At the end of the day the responsibility for this [travel] has been in the hands of individual countries themselves.”

He added, “Where there have been problems we should accept this. No one is perfect and there will always be mistakes. If we have to accept that there have been mistakes then we will be happy to do so.”

“We must learn the lessons from this pandemic. We must learn the lessons so that the world never again finds itself unprepared” Dr Tedros Adhanom, WHO Director-General

He said, “We do assessments regularly because we focus on trying to improve and there will be another one soon.”

On the post-crisis recovery, Adhanom said, “We must learn the lessons from this pandemic. We must learn the lessons so that the world never again finds itself unprepared.”

WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 12. Based on the data received by WHO from national authorities, there have been 9.2 million confirmed cases at global level and 477,634 deaths to date.

Asked about the availability of a vaccine, Adhanom said WHO would seek to “accelerate” development of a vaccine and also “ensure its global access.”

Adhanom told members, “I can understand the concerns about access. It will be very difficult to get a vaccine but many scientists are working on this. There are 100 candidates with four in the frontline and one at an advanced stage.”

“We think there could be one within a year and maybe less, say ten months. But if one is found what about access to it? It has to be for the public good globally. For this, we must have political commitment and a consensus about the fair distribution of any vaccine but this will be difficult.”

The virus, Adhanom said, posed “two very dangerous combinations: it is fast and it is a killer. It has also surprised many countries.”

He said, “It has affected every sector so a strong, coordinated international response is vital. It is also much more than a health crisis because the economic and social effects will be felt for years to come.”

“Even some of the most wealthy countries had their health systems strained and the pandemic has taught us that we must invest in health preparedness. We need to increase spending on public health by at least 1 percent of GDP. Countries must put in place measures so they can respond rapidly to major health outbreaks.”

The crisis, he said, has given us a glimpse of the world as it could be. “It is a challenge to our way of life. Will we learn lessons from it or just go back to the way we were?”

“As societies start to open again I say we cannot go back but must create a new normal and a more inclusive society.”

Adhanom also praised “Team Europe” in recently adopting “two landmark measures” - the Biodiversity and Farm to Fork strategies, saying these will “support the economic recovery.”

He added, “We must, though, all continue to take every precaution: isolate and treat every case. The spread of the disease has been supressed in Europe but it is still circulating and it is deadly. This is not the time to lower our guard.”

Irish MEP Mick Wallace sought to defend WHO by saying, “it has been drained of powers and resources so its performance during this crisis is all the greater.”

German EPP member Peter Liese was also sympathetic and said the Parliament “unlike Donald Trump” supports WHO.

He said, “We have nothing in common with Trump who is doing the wrong thing by taking money from WHO when it is most needed. Trump has shown he is not able to manage the crisis.”

He added, “But we should still talk about possible mistakes by WHO which should maybe take the same approach as Ursula von der Leyen, who has apologised for things that have gone wrong during the crisis.”

“Some say we will never have a vaccine but I am convinced we will have one. Nothing is certain but technology is giving us huge chance.”

Swedish Socialist Jytte Guteland said, “We see some positive signals with reduced cases in Europe, but we also see worrying increases in other parts. The world must pool its resources and try to find a vaccine in record time, a vaccine which is available for all, not just some, irrespective of where they live.”

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