WHO faces a health and geopolitical pandemic

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April 7 is World Health Day. But it must feel that way every day to Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), which is in the thick of a health — and geopolitical — pandemic.

Tedros, who will give a prerecorded kickoff to Global Minnesota’s virtual World Health Day Symposium next Wednesday, has tried to guide the WHO’s response in an era of growing global discord, especially between China, where the virus originated, and the U.S., where it’s devastated with the world’s highest number of deaths. Other countries, indeed continents, have been hit hard, too, in a global crisis marked, and marred, by nationalist responses.

For the WHO, the United Nations’ “coordinating authority on international health,” it’s been a time of considerable consequence. And controversy. Especially this week with the release of a a joint report from a team of 17 Chinese scientists and 17 international scientists on the origins of the coronavirus.

Well, sort of a report. It is inconclusive, in part because of restrictions researchers faced in China, a fact that drew rebukes from many nations, including the United States.

“The report lacks crucial data, information and access — it represents a partial and incomplete picture,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a news conference Tuesday. Chinese officials, she added, “have not been transparent, they have not provided underlying data.”

Reflecting President Joe Biden’s pledge to rally allies, 13 other countries stood with the U.S. in issuing a joint statement calling for “a transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, free from interference and undue influence, of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

That’s a view seemingly shared by Tedros himself, who was quite candid about what can be done under such scientific restrictions. Belying the view that he has been too deferential to China, Tedros said in a media briefing: “As far as WHO is concerned, all hypotheses remain on the table. This report is a very important beginning, but it is not the end. We have not yet found the source of the virus, and we must continue to follow the science and leave no stone unturned as we do.”

Among other findings, the study stated that it is “very likely” that the virus was transmitted from an animal to humans and that a laboratory leak was “extremely unlikely.” But Beijing’s opacity opens the lab-leak theory to potentially more believers — including the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Redfield.

While withering criticism of the WHO has abated somewhat since the Trump administration’s departure, the report’s limitations may lead to new rebukes. But context is key, said two political scientists in interviews.

The WHO is inhibited internationally because “the major powers don’t want to erode sovereignty,” said Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, a global political risk research and consulting firm.

“The WHO has very few tools,” said Matthew M. Kavanagh, who directs the Global Health Policy & Politics Initiative at Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. “They’ve done what they could here but there is only so far that they could go.”

Evidently, Tedros wants to go further. As do several world leaders, including allies like the United Kingdom and Italy, which were among more than 20 nations and entities like the European Union signing on to a proposal announced on Tuesday for “an international treaty for pandemic preparedness and response” (notably, neither the U.S. nor China has backed the pact).

The treaty’s main goal, its supporters said in a commentary, “would be to foster an all-of-government and all-of-society approach, strengthening national, regional and global capacities and resilience to future pandemics. This includes greatly enhancing international cooperation to improve, for example, alert systems, data-sharing, research, and local, regional and global production and distribution of medical and public health counter measures, such as vaccines, medicines, diagnostics and personal protective equipment.”

The world, Tedros said at a news conference, “cannot afford to wait until the pandemic is over to start planning for the next one.” A pandemic treaty, he added, would give “a framework for international cooperation and solidarity.”

Such solidarity is sorely lacking, leading to international inequities in detection, treatment, and vaccines, as well as economic aid. These increased inequities may lead to “rising polarization, erosion of trust in government, or social unrest,” the IMF said in a report released on Thursday.

Global and local perspectives on health equity will be among the themes at Global Minnesota’s symposium, in which an impressive cohort of corporate, government, and nongovernmental organizations will share their expertise. Among the many data points they may mull is this stark statistic from a New York Times analysis: Only 0.1% of vaccines have been administered in low-income countries.

That “the remarkable science behind the discovery and development of these vaccines has not been met by an equally remarkable effort to get those vaccines where they are most needed is truly a global crisis,” said Kavanagh.

“The smart strategy,” Kavanagh added, “would have been to say, ‘We have funded these technologies, let’s share them with the world so that anybody who wants to produce these vaccines can do so.’ But instead, we have ended up in a crisis where we are not vaccinating nearly at the speed that we could be, and the majority of the world’s pharmaceutical producers are not making vaccines right now because the vaccines they want most are locked away in monopolies by a few companies in a few countries.”

Bremmer also lamented the lack of vaccine coordination, but predicted vaccine exports will accelerate in months. And, he added, the fact that vaccine development has been global, albeit nationalized, spared the world further turbulence.

The world is in a “horrible geopolitical environment, and yet we have Russia, China, India, the U.S., Europe, all have very strongly working vaccines,” Bremmer said. “It’s a huge deal, and that means by next year there is no vaccine nationalism; it’s a surplus market. The fact that the U.S. and China have so much mistrust for each other, and the U.S. and Russia have so much mistrust for each other, that relationships are so bad, isn’t actually going to cause a lot of conflict because everyone is going to have vaccines.”

Universal vaccination is the way out of this world health and geopolitical pandemic, two truly global crises that should have been met with a truly global response.

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport. Once a month, the theme of this column is determined by the “Great Decisions” dialogue on foreign policy, conducted in partnership with the nonprofit citizen engagement organization Global Minnesota. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.

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