WHO reform needed in the wake of pandemic, public health experts say By Reuters

By Kate Kelland and Josephine Mason LONDON (Reuters) – The role and competence of the World Health Organization (WHO) needs to be examined in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and reforms will likely be needed to free it from politics and give it more independence, public health experts said Wednesday. At the Reuters Next conference, British epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, Swedish state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, and Chikwe Ihekweazu, director of the Nigerian Center for Disease Control, said the United Nations health agency had faced difficulties in leading a global response to the pandemic. “We need to reflect on how the global architecture can be improved,” Ferguson said, including the need to rethink “the governance of organizations like the WHO.” “One of the challenges he faces is being truly independent,” he said. “It’s usually influenced by the big states. Historically, it’s been Western countries like the United States, and now it’s also China, and that can sometimes be challenging in situations like last year.” Many governments around the world, including those in the United States, Australia and the European Union, have called for the WHO to be reformed or restructured amid criticism of its response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The WHO has been rocked by a US decision last year to halt its funding and has been accused of being too close to China in the early phase of the pandemic, when critics say Beijing was slow to share crucial information about it. new coronavirus. which first appeared in the city of Wuhan. The WHO has repeatedly rejected such accusations and China insists it has been open and transparent. Speaking on the same panel at the Reuters Next conference, Swede Tegnell said that, in his view, “this crisis, compared to many of the crises of the last decade, has become much more politicized.” “That has made the role of the WHO much more difficult,” he said. Nigeria’s Ihekweazu said he hoped the coming year would see the world work more closely together to tackle the pandemic, particularly to improve equitable access to vaccines designed to prevent the disease. ‘YEAR OF VACCINES’ While COVID-19 vaccines are starting to roll out in some wealthier countries in Europe and America, poorer nations may have to wait a few months before accessing supplies. “There is no doubt that this year will be the year of vaccines,” Ihekweazu said, adding that he had just seen an updated map of the countries where vaccines have already been administered. “Looking at it from a global perspective, it’s heartbreaking,” he said. “But it’s early, it’s January, so we’ll have to see how the year goes by.” All three experts said they expected populations in their countries and others to face restrictions designed to slow the spread of the pandemic for at least the first half of 2021, and perhaps longer if the launch of the vaccines takes longer. But they said they hoped that by the end of the year life could start to look a little more like normal before a pandemic. “We have to remember that in the world around us, this virus will most likely continue to spread,” Tegnell said. “So we have to maintain a high level of preparation. It is not going to be an easy life.” For more information on the Reuters Next conference, click here or www.reuters.com/business/reuters-next To watch Reuters Next live, visit https://www.reutersevents.com/events/next/register.php