WHO's missteps in COVID-19 crisis heighten alarm over push for new pandemic treaty

Global accord under discussion would increase power of WHO, enshrine global COVID-19 response, critics warn.

Published: May 20, 2022 4:09pm

Updated: May 21, 2022 6:58am

The U.S. and other countries are set to vote on new, legally binding international health rules and debate the establishment of a sweeping agreement to combat future pandemics at a major gathering next week, prompting concerns that such changes would centralize too much power in the hands of the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations' health agency.

This concern has caused experts and lawmakers to shine a spotlight on the WHO's checkered record during the COVID-19 pandemic as they warn the public health measures under discussion would empower the WHO in significant ways.

Observers are pointing to the WHO's performance ahead of the World Health Assembly, the WHO's decision-making body comprised of 194 member countries, preparing to convene in Geneva, Switzerland from Sunday to the following Saturday.

Topping the agenda will be countries voting on proposed amendments to the International Health Regulations (IHR), instruments of international law that are legally binding on WHO member countries, including the U.S.

The Biden administration quietly submitted the proposed amendments in January, but they weren't made public until last month and are only now receiving more attention because of the World Health Assembly.

Beyond voting on the IHR, the U.S. and other countries will also discuss progress on a working draft of what both supporters and opponents informally call a "pandemic treaty." 

Supporters argue the treaty and IHR changes can address the holes exposed by the world's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Critics say the measures vastly expand the authority and resources of the WHO, which would be given greater control to dictate how nations respond to future pandemics — power, they argue, that isn't deserved in light of the global body's handling of COVID-19.

"The WHO global pandemic agreement is unnecessary, misguided, and dangerous," said Dr. Pierre Kory, president and chief medical officer of the Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance. "We cannot trust the leadership of the WHO with the power the agreement gives them."

Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, professor of medicine at Stanford University, expressed similar distrust of the WHO.

"If the WHO were trustworthy, if it had performed well during this lockdown, it would be one thing," he told TalkTV. "The WHO has not earned our trust. Before we give the WHO these kinds of powers, it really needs to earn our trust."

The WHO has been widely criticized for its handling of COVID-19, such as not sounding the alarm sooner. By the time WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, 114 countries had already reported cases of the disease, and there were just under 4,300 fatalities worldwide, including about 1,200 in the U.S., according to CNN.

"The WHO failed to warn the rest of the world during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequently has failed to adequately investigate the pandemic's origin," a group of lawmakers, led by Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Texas), wrote in a recent letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra expressing concern about the WHO's "thinly veiled power grab."

The WHO also didn't support then-President Donald Trump's initial travel restrictions on China, fueling charges that the global body is heavily influenced by the Chinese government.

"The WHO leadership prioritized China's economic interests over halting the spread of the virus when COVID-19 first emerged," a Sunday Times investigation found. "China exerted ultimate control over the WHO investigation into the origins of COVID-19, appointing its chosen experts and negotiating a backroom deal to water down the mandate."

Since 2017, China has prevented Taiwan, which Beijing views as a renegade province and tries to isolate from international organizations, from participating in the World Health Assembly.

"Everything about the WHO is political," Gooden told the John Solomon Reports podcast on Thursday. "It's a disaster."

Perhaps most notoriously, the WHO "pushed Chinese-style lockdowns as the preferred tactic" for fighting COVID-19, according to Bhattacharya, who added that the WHO "grossly exaggerated" mortality rates for COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic and "used panic as a tool."

Indeed, the WHO advocated the use of lockdowns, first imposed by China, to stop the spread of the virus, and countries began implementing such measures over the course of 2020. Some still have lockdown measures in place today.

"The WHO opposed any early treatment in favor of lockdowns and forced vaccinations," said Kory.

A study from Johns Hopkins University earlier this year stated that lockdowns "imposed enormous economic and social costs where they have been adopted" before concluding, "Lockdown policies are ill-founded and should be rejected as a pandemic policy instrument."

Beyond lockdowns, the WHO issued guidance for global PCR testing that was later found to have a significantly high false positive rate. The global body also issued guidance on the use of mechanical ventilators under which the vast majority of COVID-19 patients were killed, according to one study conducted in New York.

Throughout the pandemic, the WHO changed its public positions multiple times on various pandemic-related issues, such as vaccine efficacy, mask-wearing, and the spread of asymptomatic COVID-19.

"We have failed in our collective capacity to come together in solidarity to create a protective web of human security," a WHO panel concluded last year in a damning report on the COVID-19 response. "The failure to enact fundamental change despite the warnings issued has left the world dangerously exposed, as the COVID-19 pandemic proves."

Still, the Biden administration's proposed amendments to the IHR would, among other changes, expand the power of the WHO to declare pandemics and other health emergencies. The U.S. proposal specifically deletes a key line from the old version of the IHR that required the WHO to consult with and attempt to obtain verification from countries in whose territory the public health issue in question is allegedly occurring before declaring an emergency and pushing certain recommendations.

"There's no definition of what 'health emergency' is," said Gooden. "We've heard people call homelessness a health emergency. And I've heard Democrats in this country call gun violence a health emergency. Where does it begin? Where does it end? I'm terrified by that."

Beyond the IHR, the current draft of the pandemic treaty would give the WHO more power to impose its recommendations to combat pandemics, potentially including lockdown measures and travel restrictions. It also calls for the WHO to establish a "new global system for surveillance" and "to deploy proactive countermeasures against misinformation and social media attacks."

Additionally, the accord includes measures for the development of digital vaccine certificates and contact tracing "in the international context."

Critics have argued the treaty and IHR changes would undermine national sovereignty.

"Any agreement that will directly impact people's lives should be developed transparently with input from the public," said Kory. "However, the WHO is working mainly in secret along with several governments worldwide, including the U.S. government that recently submitted recommendations for the agreement without disclosing them to the public. Colluding in secret to undermine the rights of the people is how dictatorships operate and not how science-based medical policies that protect public health are created."

Georgetown University law professor Lawrence Gostin, who also works as director of the WHO's Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law, dismissed such concerns as "conspiracy theories with no relation to the truth" without elaborating in an email to Just the News.

When asked to comment for this story, the WHO directed Just the News to a page on its website, which states that a pandemic treaty, "if and when agreed, would be determined by governments themselves, who would take any action while considering their own national laws and regulations."

The page also argued that such accords are normal and that this specific one would build global cooperation, preparedness, and resilience to combat future pandemics.

However, others say the real effect of the treaty and IHR changes is to enshrine and codify the WHO's COVID-19 response as the blueprint for fighting future pandemics.

"I think there are some good things that the WHO are thinking about, like increasing sharing of genetic sequencing information and more globally equitable distribution of vaccines," Bhattacharya told Just the News. "But much of the effort seems focused on expanding the power of WHO and the apparatus within member states to more easily grab expansive powers during pandemics. If the full version is passed, it will institutionalize the failed lockdown-focused pandemic playbook we have used during the COVID-19 pandemic."

Others counter that the WHO is necessary and that a fresh accord may help improve it.

"We need the WHO to prevent and mitigate future pandemics," said University of Virginia law professor Margaret Riley, who teaches health law. "If it didn't exist, we would have to invent it. An international treaty provides clearer rules and predictable funding — and as a result, an influx of talent. We may like to think that any one nation can do best to protect itself, but that isn't true; pandemics, by definition, require international cooperation."

In Gooden's letter, he and other lawmakers told Becerra that the U.S. shouldn't grant the WHO any additional power "until there is a full and complete investigation into the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic and the WHO's role in covering up the Chinese government's likely role in its origin."

The White House, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases didn't respond to requests for comment.

The WHO didn't address criticisms of its handling of COVID-19 when reached for comment.

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