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Panel: China, WHO should have acted quicker to stop pandemic

GENEVA (AP) — A panel of experts commissioned by the World Health Organization has criticized China and other countries for not moving to stem the initial outbreak of the coronavirus earlier and questioned whether the U.N. health agency should have labeled it a pandemic sooner.

In a report issued to the media Monday, the panel led by former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said there were “lost opportunities” to set up basic public health measures as early as possible.

“What is clear to the panel is that public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China in January,” it said.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying disputed whether China had reacted too slowly.

“As the first country to sound the global alarm against the epidemic, China made immediate and decisive decisions,” she said, pointing out that Wuhan — where the first human cases were identified — was locked down within three weeks of the outbreak starting.

“All countries, not only China, but also the U.S., the U.K., Japan or any other countries, should all try to do better,” Hua said.

At a press briefing on Tuesday, Johnson Sirleaf said it was up to countries whether they wanted to overhaul WHO to accord it more authority to stamp out outbreaks, saying the organization was also constrained by its lack of funding.

“The bottom line is WHO has no powers to enforce anything,” she said. “All it can do is ask to be invited in.”

Last week, an international team of WHO-led scientists arrived in Wuhan to research the animal origins of the pandemic after months of political wrangling to secure China’s approval for the probe.

The panel also cited evidence of cases in other countries in late January, saying public health containment measures should have been put in place immediately in any country with a likely case, adding: “They were not.”

The experts also wondered why WHO did not declare a global public health emergency — its highest warning for outbreaks — sooner. The U.N. health agency convened its emergency committee on Jan. 22, but did not characterize the emerging pandemic as an international emergency until a week later.

“One more question is whether it would have helped if WHO used the word pandemic earlier than it did,” the panel said.

WHO did not describe the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic until March 11, weeks after the virus had begun causing explosive outbreaks in numerous continents, meeting WHO’s own definition for a flu pandemic.

As the coronavirus began spreading across the globe, WHO’s top experts disputed how infectious the virus was, saying it was not as contagious as flu and that people without symptoms only rarely spread the virus. Scientists have since concluded that COVID-19 transmits even quicker than the flu and that a significant proportion of spread is from people who don’t appear to be sick.

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