GENEVA - The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how underfunded and powerless the World Health Organization is to carry out the tasks the world expects of it, an independent expert panel said Tuesday.
The heads of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response presented a report to the WHO's executive board which said that the UN health body could have acted faster and more decisively at the start of the pandemic to avert catastrophe.
But they stressed that the delays and failures could largely be attributed to the weak position of the UN agency, and said more funding and reforms were desperately needed.
"The world is more reliant on an effective WHO than ever before," said former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who co-chairs the panel with former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark.
But, she told reporters, the same countries that have turned to the WHO for leadership during the crisis "have kept it underpowered and under-resourced to do the job expected of it."
COVID-19 was first detected in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019 before seeping beyond China's borders to wreak global havoc, costing more than two million lives and eviscerating economies.
The WHO has faced claims it moved too slowly to declare an international crisis, to acknowledge the virus was spreading through the air, and to recommend face masks.
It has also faced criticism for not pressing China harder to provide accurate information on the initial cases and for allowing more than a year to pass before an international team of experts could enter China to help search for the origins of the virus.
But while the panel report also suggested the WHO should have acted quicker at the start, Johnson Sirleaf stressed that "the bottom line is the WHO has no powers to enforce anything or investigate... within a country".
"When it comes to a potential new disease threat, all the WHO can do is ask and hope to be invited in," she said.
Clark also pointed to the agency's low level of funding and the dangers of relying so heavily on volatile voluntary contributions.
Such contributions can suddenly disappear, as seen last year when the United States, traditionally the WHO's biggest donor, halted its backing.
"The funding of the WHO is woeful," Clark said, pointing to comparisons showing the agency receives less than a single hospital in New York.
"This is our global health organization. We want it to do well, we need it to do well," she said, "but it has been kept on pretty short rations."
The panel also found that the international alert system for health emergencies needed an overhaul.
It complained that it took a full month for the WHO's emergency committee to declare the highest alert level, a Public Health Emergency of International Concern or PHEIC, and that many countries did not appear to appreciate the seriousness of the situation.
"Pathogens can travel in minutes and hours, not in days and weeks," Clark said.
"The international system for alert and response has the trappings of an analog system in the digital age."