As pandemic continues, World Health Organization struggles to maintain coherent response

The agency has whipsawed back and forth on several critical matters.

Updated: July 4, 2020 - 4:52pm

Since December, the World Health Organization has flip-flopped and fumbled its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, at times reversing course on major health issues that has led to confusion among world leaders on just how to handle the pandemic.

Among the earliest failures of the WHO—one which only became apparent last week—was the organization's omission of how it initially learned of the disease outbreak.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on April 20 that "the first report [of the disease] came from Wuhan, from China itself," suggesting that the Chinese Communist Party informed the organization of the pandemic in the first days of the outbreak.  

Yet, an updated timeline published last week states instead that WHO's Country Office in China first learned of the disease from "a media statement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission" on Dec. 31.  The lack of clarity led multiple media outlets to report that Chinese authorities told the WHO’s China office about the outbreak.

But according to the WHO's timeline, Chinese officials only provided the organization with information on the initial outbreak of cases there on Jan. 3. 

Chinese officials have been accused of covering up the extent of the outbreak, including when it first arose in Wuhan. Some experts have estimated that, had China's Communist government revealed the disease's outbreak when it first began and requested international help, the worst of the global pandemic likely could have been averted.

No masks, then masks

The WHO has also whipsawed regarding the question of face coverings. The organization had previously declared that "the wide use of masks by healthy people in the community setting is not supported by current evidence and carries uncertainties and critical risks." Among those risks, according to the WHO, were "breathing difficulties," "self-contamination," a "false sense of security" and a "diversion of resources from effective public health measures."

In June, the organization clarified its recommendations, suggesting that "governments should encourage the general public to wear masks in specific situations and settings as part of a comprehensive approach to suppress SARS-CoV-2 transmission."

Though the advice was highly qualified and still included a list of associated risks involving mask-wearing, the effect on the general public was largely unequivocal: "WHO reverses course, now advises people wear face masks," read one typical headline.

That shift on masks mirrored flip-flops from public health officials in the United States and around the world. As with many health authorities, WHO officials claimed that new information on asymptomatic spread of the disease was part of the reason they changed their recommendations.

Asymptomatic spread actually 'rare'

Fears of infected individuals walking around and spreading the disease while showing no symptoms have been one of the main drivers of panic surrounding the virus, and have led many governments around the world to impose harsh lockdown measures to prevent nominally healthy individuals from transmitting the virus. 

Yet WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said on June 9 that, based on her organization's observations, asymptomatic spread of the disease appears to be highly unlikely. “We have a number of reports from countries who are doing very detailed contact tracing," she said at a press conference. "They are following asymptomatic cases, they are following contacts and they are not finding secondary transmission onward, it’s very rare." Those remarks echoed earlier findings from the WHO that, for instance, "transmission from an asymptomatic person is very rare with other coronaviruses."

The comment generated furious rebuke from officials, many of whom had based strict national policy off the idea that asymptomatic spread was common and widespread. Van Kerkhove offered a clarification of her comments 24 hours later, calling the matter of asymptomatic spread "a big open question and that remains an open question" but didn't go as far as retracting her earlier statements about asymptomatic spread being "very rare." 

However, despite that clarification several media outlets claimed that Van Kerkhove had "walked back" her earlier remarks and that the WHO "didn't actually mean" that asymptomatic spread was rare.

Hydroxychloroquine study halted

The WHO in May halted a study examining the effects of the drug hydroxychloroquine in treating the coronavirus, claiming the study was based on a report indicating increased mortality in patients who took the drug to treat the disease. 

The move came as President Trump in March touted the drug as a possible cure for COVID-19. At the time, commentators and health officials have claimed repeatedly in the subsequent months that the drug—which has been safely used for over six decades to treat numerous ailments—is lethally risky and unsafe for coronavirus patients. 

Yet, last month the journal that published the study retracted its increased mortality findings, declaring that its authors could "no longer vouch for the veracity of the primary data sources."

Just prior to that retraction, the WHO resumed its hydroxychloroquine trials, however, later in June it would ultimately drop the drug from those trials, citing data indicating that the drug offered no benefit to COVID-19 patients. 

Meanwhile, a study conducted by the Henry Ford Health System and published Thursday in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases stated that its own trials of hydroxychloroquine had resulted in significant mortality reduction of COVID-19 patients. 

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