New Delhi: World Health Organisation (WHO) chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan has defended the UN agency’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, saying it had been giving timely warnings as and when it gained more information.
In conversation with Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta at ThePrint’s Off the Cuff Saturday, she expressed hope that the discord in the WHO’s relationship with the US would prove “temporary”.
“We are open to an audit and an investigation into how the organisation responded to the pandemic,” said Swaminathan, when asked about allegations, including from US President Donald Trump, that the WHO played down the threat from coronavirus, which originated in China, in the initial days.
Swaminathan, a member of the WHO leadership team, claimed the organisation had been “fair, transparent and as technically informed as possible” in its response.
Trump’s accusations and decision to cut WHO funding
On 15 April, Donald Trump halted US funding to the WHO pending a review, after accusing the agency of “mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus”. The US currently accounts for the highest number of coronavirus cases as well as deaths.
Trump had alleged that WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had a close relationship with China and he had delayed declaring the outbreak a public health emergency.
The US has been the largest contributor to the WHO, which is funded by voluntary donations and member states, accounting for 14.67 per cent of the total contribution.
Swaminathan, former director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the country’s apex medical research body, denied any cover-up by the WHO, adding that it had been briefing the media about every new development regarding the pandemic.
Is China hiding data?
Asked whether the data coming out of China raised any suspicion that the country may be hiding something, Soumya Swaminathan said, “As of now I have not seen anything that makes me or any of my colleagues suspicious.”
The team of technical experts that had visited China in January included representatives of the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and National Institutes of Health (NIH). They collected a huge amount of data, she added.
“They visited Wuhan to see how the situation was being tackled and prepared a report,” Swaminathan said, adding that China had been sharing their expertise from time to time with teams all over the world, not just the WHO.
“They have been extremely open to dialogues and discussions. We speak to them on a regular basis. They are a part of many of our committees. They are going to work with us on vaccine development – they already have two candidate vaccines in human trials,” she said.
Asked why Trump was unhappy with the WHO, Swaminathan said she could not answer that question. However, she pointed out that, at the level of scientists, “our collaborations have always been excellent. We work very closely with both the CDC and NIH”.
“The US is one of our valued partners, not just in terms of the resources, but also in terms of the technical collaborations we have had with their institutions,” she said.
“We have developed a strong bond over the years. And I hope that it will continue, and that this is a temporary problem,” Swaminathan said.
The WHO, she added, is very open and transparent to a review, but right now is not the time “because we are facing a wildfire”.
How the outbreak unfolded
The coronavirus pandemic was first detected in the Chinese town of Wuhan in December 2019. Discussing its emergence, Soumya Swaminathan said the WHO was first informed about an unusual cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan by Chinese officials on 31 December, following which an “incident management support team” was set up.
On 4 January, the WHO reported about the pneumonia cluster incident on social media and, the next day, it released a statement about the disease outbreak, the WHO chief scientist added.
By 11 January, China had already shared the first genome sequence of the virus publicly, which made it clear that the outbreak was caused by a novel coronavirus, Swaminathan said.
Around 23 January, the WHO’s technical committee decided against declaring the disease a ‘public health emergency of international concern’ (PHEIC) since there were very few cases outside China, or even Wuhan, at the time, said Swaminathan.
A week later, on 30 January, the WHO declared the outbreak a ‘PHEIC’. On the same day, India reported its first coronavirus case in Kerala.
“There had been just 82 cases of coronavirus outside of China at that time,” said Swaminathan.Even so, by 10 January, she added, the WHO had already put together an ‘R&D blueprint’, a global strategy and preparedness plan, which allows the rapid activation of research and development activities during epidemics.
WHO doesn’t have the power to inspect
Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump had lashed out at the WHO chief for praising China when he visited the country in January, not declaring Covid-19 a global emergency until later, and what he described as Ghebreyesus’ inability to make China share data about the pandemic.
Responding to these charges, Soumya Swaminathan said, “The World Health Organisation does not take sides, we are a neutral organisation, we praise countries whenever it is due.”
She said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had praised India’s Ayushman Bharat – which offers medical insurance cover for poor households – several times as he believed in the cause of universal health coverage.
“One must understand what the WHO can and cannot do. The WHO is a member-state organisation and the member-states have the authority to make rules and regulations,” Swaminathan said.
In 2005, WHO member-states passed the International Health Regulations (IHR) – a law that provides a public health response to the international spread of disease – after the spread of SARS.
While most member-states agreed to share data and have been doing so, the WHO does not have the authority to make the countries do so, said Swaminathan.
The WHO can work through cooperation, building consensus and giving advice, she added. “It does not have the power of an inspector to march into countries and do inspections,” she said, adding that the WHO director general depended on technical experts of various countries to declare an outbreak an emergency and the committee had initially advised against it.
On the WHO’s criticism of the travel ban imposed by the US on Chinese travellers in January, she said, as a policy, the body does not recommend travel restrictions and bans under the IHR even during emergencies as they can have “unintended consequences”. Travel restrictions have to be temporary and measured and based on the latest evidence, she said.
On WHO chief
In defence of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has come under fire from several quarters in the last couple of months, Soumya Swaminathan said the whole team had been working round the clock since January, adding that the WHO chief was the last person to leave the building.
“His heart is in the right place,” Swaminathan said. She pointed out that Ghebreyesus’ brother had died of malaria, and the Ethiopian national came from a background that allowed him to understand poverty and disease.
She said there could be mistakes and failings due to human errors of judgement, but the WHO was open to an audit of its response to the pandemic.
The emergency programme had improved and performed better than the Ebola outbreak of 2014-15, she said. “Everyone did their best, starting with Dr Tedros.”