If not the WHO, then who? Critics say COVID-19 investigation requires a new treaty, a do-over, or better intelligence

Eleanor Bartow, DCNF

  • The WHO-led team investigating COVID-19 lacked the power “to demand transparency and accountability,” according to an article in Foreign Policy.
  • A new pandemic treaty would help inspectors gain access, with sanctions to enforce cooperation, supporters say.
  • Such a treaty might have prevented the pandemic, according to a WHO advisory committee member.

Critics of the World Health Organization-led team’s report on the origins of COVID-19 have several proposals to improve the investigation of pandemics, including a new treaty that would empower WHO to do a better investigation.

The U.S. and other nations have criticized the WHO report on COVID-19’s origin released on March 30 as lacking scientific rigor due to China blocking access to information, with some proposing that the WHO appoint a different team or calling on the U.S. National Institutes of Health to take over the investigation. 

The same day the WHO-led team’s report was released, the head of WHO and dozens of heads of state called for a new treaty to address future pandemics.

The WHO-led team investigating COVID-19 was “powerless to demand transparency and accountability, because it lacked the tools to independently confirm data or operate in a country without its permission,” Lawrence O. Gostin, Eric A. Friedman, and Lauren Dueck of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law wrote in an article in Foreign Policy on Monday.

“Through chemical and nuclear treaties … independent agencies can deploy independent scientists to inspect facilities. No less is needed for investigating novel and dangerous pathogens,” according to Gostin, Friedman and Dueck.

“There is no sure solution, but one model could be the kind of inspection and notification regime that currently exists on nuclear weapon de-proliferation,” the article states. Appropriate enforcement mechanisms might include sanctions.

“This won’t guarantee that a state with something to hide will not use its ability to control who enters its territory for inspections, but it would raise the stakes of such reluctance and increase the global approbation needed to exert more pressure on noncompliant member states. Realistically, for a country like China that insists rigidly on its sovereignty, it will always be difficult to gain full compliance,” according to the article.

“A new global health treaty is a wonderful idea we should all get behind. If we’d had this kind of system in place in late 2019, the entire pandemic could likely have been avoided. Shame on us if we don’t learn our lesson,” tweeted WHO advisory committee member Jamie Metzl in response to the proposed treaty.

While Gostin and his colleagues believe “WHO is the most likely home of the pandemic treaty” it notes that the “the U.N. is another possible route for the treaty. With the U.N. being less consensus-driven, a powerful treaty that might be watered down if adopted through WHO could be possible.”

Another proposal is for the WHO to start over with a new team.

The WHO “lacks the powers to pry open closed doors in China, and there is not another good alternative. However, Dr. Tedros [head of the WHO] could appoint a new team of highly qualified international experts, including forensic specialists, to investigate the laboratory-leak hypothesis, and forcefully insist that China not stand in its way,” The Washington Post Editorial Board opined on March 6.

Instead of a do-over, the House Energy and Commerce Committee wants the NIH to lead an investigation into COVID-19’s origins.

“The NIH, as a premier scientific institution, must lead in order to foster a transparent, independent, and science-based investigation into the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the committee states.

“The NIH is well-positioned to gather and provide information through oversight of its grants and other federal awards. Thus, the NIH is in a unique position to investigate the possibility that the pandemic stemmed from a laboratory accident or leak, especially regarding the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV),” the letter says.

An NIH grant of $600,000 funded bat-based coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology prior to the pandemic.

Others say that the only way to get access to required data in such an investigation is through better intelligence.

“Our intelligence community should, across the board, be elevating its tools, its resources, its practices to focus on detecting, preventing and responding to pandemics,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told “Face the Nation” on Feb. 21.

Matt Pottinger, deputy national security adviser during the Trump administration, said on the same show that U.S. intelligence for the pandemic relied on the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The intelligence community needs “to prioritize the collection of intelligence on these kinds of bio threats rather than relying strictly on sister-to-sister relationships between our CDC and public health officials in other countries,” according to Pottinger.

“The problem was the Chinese Communist Party did not turn to their CDC to deal with this crisis. They turned to their military. And our CDC did not have relations established with the Chinese military … So it looks like the Chinese CDC to some extent was cut out because the Chinese Communist Party turned to its military to try to cover this thing up, to try to contain it until it was too late,” Pottinger added.

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