The World Health Organisation: an institution in dire need of reform

A new report by an international team of experts, led by the World Health Organization (WHO), which has looked into the origins of the Coronavirus first identified in Wuhan, China, has brought the World Health Organization (WHO) back into the spotlight. 

The report, which is written jointly with Chinese scientists, dismissed any notion  the virus escaped through a laboratory incident, instead stating that animal-to-human spillover was the more likely pathway, It then suggested further research was needed in every area except the lab leak hypothesis.

This was immediately questioned by those who consider the presence of the Wuhan Institute of Virology as being  too coincidental.  In a reaction, well-known British science journalist Lord Ridley commented

“We were expecting a whitewash and a whitewash is what’ve got. (…) The report, in 300 pages, dismisses in one paragraph, as very unlikely, the idea that the virus leaked out of a laboratory, but then spends 20 or 30 pages, going into great detail, how 45.000 animals – poultry, wildlife and things, that had been tested in China – were all found negative, yet nonetheless concludes that it is very likely that one of them carried the virus to Wuhan.” 

The U.S. government openly expressed concerns about China’s influence over the investigation. Together with Canada, Australia, the UK, Denmark and a number of other countries, it issued a joint statement slamming the report, stating that it “lacked access to complete, original data and samples.” At least, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also said that the “lab leak” hypothesis required further investigation, but this really isn’t a good look for the WHO.

The big takeaway from all this are ongoing and escalating concerns that China, which is looking like the tail that wags the WHO dog, chips in a mere 0.88% of the WHO’s budget despite being the world’s second biggest economy..

By contrast, until President Donald Trump pulled the country out of the WHO a year ago, the US was the biggest donor last year with 7.27%.

The WHO’s funding is something that deserves closer scrutiny. It emerged in 2017 that it spends about $200 million a year on travel expenses. That’s more than what it spends to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined, running up to $1 billion over five years, as the organization continues to demand extra cash. “Doctors Without Borders”, which has five times as much staff, only spends about $43 million on travel a year. 

Yet the financial shenanigans are only part of the reason why the organization cannot be called a top performer, with its finger firmly on the pulse of global health. 

It took the fateful decision to recognize traditional medicine, which, according to Nature, includes “medicines that are not properly tested and could even be harmful”. In China, the drug regulator receives more than 230,000 reports of adverse effects from so-called “Traditional Chinese Medicine” each year. There must be some industry lobbying going on here, as this so-called “TCM” is big business in China, where it also enjoys strong support by the government, as it has been driving a surge in illegal wildlife trade.

In the recent past, the WHO also  fell short during the Ebola and Swine flu outbreaks, by either failing to sound the alarm about Ebola until months into the outbreak or by  declaring a “false pandemic”, according to the chair of the health committee at the Council of Europe.

Its mismanagement of the current Covid-19 crisis has been almost widely accepted. In particular, the WHO ignoring Taiwan’s early warnings can be said to have  contributed to a lot more global suffering. 

In sum, it is all too clear that this is an organization in dire need of reform. 

A particular reason for the WHO’s lackluster performance is its tendency to stray from the original core mission, which is to help prevent the spread of diseases, something which would have been rather very useful to the world during the last one and a half year. 

The WHO today considers it useful for it to devote its energy “to establish global standards and to give strong advice to countries regarding rational public health measures”, in the words of one WHO official.

Apart from pushing for all kinds of legislative and regulatory interventions – often suggesting extra taxes or restrictions, from mandatory health warnings to bans on advertising or outright bans on products with a potential for harm reduction – to combat diseases that are more tied to lifestyle and are not contagious at all, it has also run campaigns directed against the use of alcohol, tobacco, salt and sugar. 

Surely one could make a good case that excessive consumption of all of that isn’t a healthy thing to do, but any decision on whether to take regulatory action here should obviously be left to the wisdom of national governments. Given its track record, the WHO should perhaps withhold its advice to the world’s citizenry on this matter for now, and work harder to counter communicable diseases? 

An alternative option is for the WHO to abandon its original mission altogether, break links with the United Nations, and officially become a charity, so then it can pursue its advocacy in all liberty. Countries could then perhaps instead create a rapid international response body, tasked specifically with the fight against the spread of diseases.


Pieter Cleppe is the editor of www.BrusselsReport.eu, a new online magazine covering EU and Eurozone policies