Why WHO Took 3 Months to Declare a Global Pandemic
When U.S. President Donald Trump cut off his government's funding to the World
Health Organization (WHO), one of his grievances was that the WHO-under Chinese
tutelage-failed to declare the global coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic soon
enough. Not long after the virus brought patients to Hubei Provincial Hospital,
the Chinese medical and public health authorities brought it to the notice of the WHO. The WHO
investigated the virus over the course of early January, sending a team into
Wuhan and making public whatever credible information it could report.
The WHO’s International Health Regulations
(2005) Emergency Committee met twice in January, first on January
22-23 and then again
30; in the first meeting,
the committee felt it had insufficient evidence to declare an emergency, but at
the second meeting it took the decision to declare a public health emergency of
international concern (PHEIC). This is the penultimate step for the WHO; on
March 11, after it became clear that the virus was spreading across borders,
but not before the WHO made many warnings to governments, the WHO declared a
Trump and his Democratic rival Joe
Biden, as well as a host of
other U.S. politicians, made the argument that the WHO did not act fast enough
with its declaration. Whatever problems posed to the United States by the virus
were not the responsibility of the U.S. government, they suggested; the fault
lay with the Chinese government and with the WHO.
Our investigation finds that this argument has
little foundation. The WHO's reporting mechanisms are sound, but the WHO's own
ability to make these formal declarations-a public health emergency and a
global pandemic, which come with serious financial consequences for member
states-has been circumscribed; those who have constrained the World Health
Organization-the United States and European nations-are the very same countries
whose leaders are now complaining about Chinese influence over the WHO.
By the 1990s, it had become clear that the WHO's
old International Health Regulations-originally issued in 1969, with only a few
minor updates and new editions over the two decades after that-were inadequate.
For one, these regulations were produced before the emergence of very
infectious, lethal, and recurrent infections such as Ebola and the avian
influenzas. Secondly, these old regulations were made before air travel began
to move about 4.3
billion passengers per
year, the scale of air traffic now making the movement of viruses so much
In May 2005, the 58th World Health Assembly
revised the 1969 regulations, pointing
out that the new
regulations would "prevent, protect against, control and provide a public health
response to the international spread of disease in ways that are commensurate
with and restricted to public health risks, and which avoid unnecessary
interference with international traffic and trade."
The North American and European states, in particular,
insisted that the declaration of a PHEIC or global pandemic only be made after
it was clear that air travel and trade would not be unduly interrupted. This
restriction, essentially the core foundations of globalization, has constrained
the WHO since 2005.
The 2009 Test
The new WHO regulations were tested when a new
influenza emerged out of Mexico and the United States in mid-April 2009. This
H1N1 was a combination of influenza virus genes that had links to swine-lineage
H1N1 from both North America and Eurasia (thus the 2009 outbreak was commonly
known as "swine flu"). It was first detected on April 15. On April 24, the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention uploaded a gene sequence onto a publicly accessible
influenzas database. On April 25, ten days after the first detection of the
virus, the WHO declared the 2009 H1N1 outbreak a PHEIC. On June
11, the WHO said that a global pandemic was underway.
In 2020, the WHO took a month to declare a PHEIC
for the coronavirus and took an additional two months after that to pronounce a
global pandemic. It was slower to announce the emergency, but it took the same
time to declare a global pandemic.
By July 2009, the dangerous H1N1 virus had a
less lethal impact than the WHO had feared. However, for the full year from its
first detection, 60.8 million people were infected and 12,469 died.
Almost immediately, the WHO was attacked for the
June 11 description of the outbreak as a pandemic. When the WHO declares a
pandemic, governments are expected to do a variety of things including mass
purchase of drugs and vaccines. These are costly.
That December, members of parliament in the
Council of Europe opened an inquiry into the WHO declaration. Fourteen members
of the Council charged the WHO with what was essentially fraud. They said that "pharmaceutical companies have
influenced scientists and official agencies, responsible for public health
standards, to alarm governments worldwide. They have made them squander tight
health care resources for inefficient vaccine strategies and needlessly exposed
millions of healthy people to the rise of unknown side-effects of
insufficiently tested vaccines." "The definition of an alarming pandemic," they
wrote, "must not be under the influence of drug-sellers."
The criticism of the WHO stung. It had declared
a pandemic, but the virus had stabilized very soon after the declaration. The
WHO responded to such criticism with humility. "Adjusting public perceptions to
suit a far less lethal virus has been problematic," the WHO responded. "Given the discrepancy between what was
expected and what has happened, a search for ulterior motives on the part of
the WHO and its scientific advisers is understandable, though without
A WHO official told one of us that the agency
had been shaken by the assault in 2009. Over the past ten years, the agency has
struggled to regain its confidence, working through the Ebola outbreak in 2014
and then Zika in 2016. In neither of those cases was there a need to make any
This year, the WHO declared a global pandemic
within three months of the first cases. But there is no doubt that the attack
on the WHO a decade ago has made an impact. Former WHO employees tell us that
fear of being attacked like this by the main donors seriously hampers the
independence of the WHO and its scientific advisers. Trump's current attack is
going to weaken further the ability of the WHO to operate at its own pace and
The World Health Organization is not the first
UN agency to face the wrath of the U.S. administration. The Trump
administration sent its budget to Congress with zero dollars
for a line item called International Organizations and Programs. Under this
line item comes United States funds for UN Development Program, UNICEF, UNESCO,
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UN Women, and UN Population
Fund. In 2018, the United States stopped funding the UN's Palestine agency (UNRWA).
When the UN is useful, the United States uses it; when the UN goes against
United States interests, it will lose its funding.
When Trump said that the WHO is "China centric," he
offered no evidence; he did not have to.
No doubt that the United States is currently
facing the wrath of the global pandemic. If the U.S. government had begun to
plan effectively after the WHO declared a public emergency on January 30 or
even when it declared a global pandemic on March 11, the problems would not be
so grave. But there was no planning at all, which is distressing. As George
it in the Atlantic,
the United States in the months after January was "like a country with shoddy
infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or
stupid to head off mass suffering." From Trump, the U.S. citizenry got "willful
blindness, scapegoating, boasts, and lies." This sums it up. Part of the
scapegoating was directed
at China; it is far easier to
blame China-already part of a dangerous trade war and a simmering regional
struggle in Asia-than to accept responsibility oneself.
Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and
journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental:
Institute for Social Research.
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.