- The Washington Times - Monday, May 18, 2020

The World Health Organization’s top official on Monday endorsed a review of the agency’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic “at the earliest appropriate moment,” yielding to pressure from the U.S.-led campaign to call out WHO and China for their early responses to the global health crisis.

Calls have been mounting for a thorough probe into the U.N. health organization’s decision-making throughout the crisis and whether it applied enough pressure on China in the early days of the outbreak to provide information and to warn other countries of the dangers to come.

WHO is holding its annual assembly this week in Geneva, and countries from the European Union and Africa said they have assembled a coalition of more than 100 nations to insist on the inquiry. Their proposal did not specifically address the Trump administration’s charges that a Chinese research lab may have played a role in the release of the new coronavirus strain.

Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that Beijing was pledging $2 billion over the next two years to aid global efforts against COVID-19, but he and his government have strongly rejected American claims about their record in the crisis and have accused President Trump of trying to deflect blame for what they say is a weak U.S. response.

Mr. Xi on Monday denied that his country hid its knowledge about the spread of the coronavirus and insisted that China provided information to WHO and relevant countries “in the most timely fashion.”

He said Beijing supports a review of the response to the pandemic but only after it “is brought under control.”

“This work should be based on science and professionalism, led by the WHO and conducted in an objective and impartial manner,” Mr. Xi said.

But the U.S. campaign raising questions about China’s performance has gained traction in recent weeks. The Australian government spearheaded a push for an early and thorough look at the origins of the coronavirus while China refused to allow WHO and international scientists unimpeded access to Wuhan and other places tied to the outbreak.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar sustained the unusually blunt rhetoric Monday. Addressing the assembly, he said WHO had to face tough questions about how the spread of the new virus had “spun out of control.”

“There was a failure by this organization to obtain the information that the world needed, and that failure cost many lives,” Mr. Azar said.

John Ullyot, a spokesman for the National Security Council, dismissed Mr. Xi’s $2 billion offer as a “token to distract from calls from a growing number of nations demanding accountability for the Chinese government’s failure to meet its obligations,” The Associated Press reported.

Because China was “the source” of the outbreak, he said, it had “a special responsibility to pay more and give more.”

China’s official state media has responded in kind to the U.S. verbal volleys. An editorial in the authoritative Beijing-based Global Times Monday accused the Trump administration of trying to distract from its own “ineptitude and inability.”

“We hope that the World Health Assembly … will not be kidnapped by the plot of a few political forces,” the editorial said. “We also hope to see more countries come to oppose such kidnapping.”

But an 11-page preliminary report from a WHO management oversight body released Monday apparently raised questions about the agency’s early-warning system for contagious diseases such as COVID-19 and about the confusing nature of travel warnings issued by the agency as the virus spread in the early months of 2020.

“We all have lessons to learn from the pandemic,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the agency’s ministerial assembly Monday.

“Every country and every organization must examine its response and learn from its experience,” Mr. Tedros added. “WHO is committed to transparency, accountability and continuous improvement.”

The EU has proposed a resolution that would launch a probe to look at “the actions of WHO and their timelines pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

More than 4.7 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported around the world, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker, with the U.S. leading the tallies in confirmed cases, deaths, testing and recoveries.

The ongoing pandemic — that has killed over 300,000 people and decimated the global economy — has been accompanied by increasingly angry finger-pointing between the U.S. and China, including charges by some Chinese sources that the U.S. Army may have introduced the virus into China.

The virus was first discovered in Wuhan, China late last year before spreading around the globe.

Mr. Trump has resisted directly criticizing Mr. Xi, whom he had complimented at various times earlier this year for his handling of the outbreak.

The WHO, based in Switzerland, is considered the world leader in public health emergencies such as the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been nearly stamped out amid violent conditions. Some fear that Mr. Trump’s possible cuts to the agency’s budget could hurt less controversial programs targeting malaria and other traditional diseases.

Critics of the WHO say the agency was slow to recognize the severity of the novel coronavirus threat, repeatedly gave out misleading information and failed to press China’s leaders to be more transparent about what they know.

Mr. Tedros warned Monday the pandemic is far from over, and “the risk remains high,” but he is confident that the organization “sounded the alarm early, and we sounded it often.”

Most countries that have reported coronavirus cases have seen less than 10% of the population contract the disease, while the highest contraction rate is 20%, the WHO chief said.

“This contagion exposes the fault lines, inequalities, injustices and contradictions of our modern world,” he said, “and geopolitical divisions have been thrown into sharp relief.”

• Dave Sherfinski contributed to this story, which is based in part on wire reports.

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