The World Health Organization will establish an independent and impartial inquiry into the source and handling of the coronavirus outbreak, once the pandemic is brought under control, a virtual meeting of its annual governing body was set to agree on Tuesday.
The proposed inquiry, mirroring previous WHO-led inquiries such as the one following the Ebola outbreak in west Africa, arguably stops short of the fully independent inquiry sought by Australia and the US, but represents a compromise brokered by a powerful alliance led by the European Union and India.
The WHO-led inquiry set out in a resolution being put to the UN World Health Assembly on Monday, and negotiated over the past week, is probably less independent and less directed at China’s role in informing the WHO than some critics of China wanted.
But the likely terms of reference will give scope to examine China’s cooperation with the WHO and the powers the organisation possesses to demand greater cooperation from member states.
The compromise came after the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, told the assembly he supported a comprehensive evaluation, including into the sources and transmission routes of the virus.
“China supports a comprehensive evaluation of the global response to the epidemic after the global epidemic is under control, to sum up experiences and remedy deficiencies,” said Xi. “This work needs a scientific and professional attitude, and needs to be led by the WHO, and the principles of objectivity and fairness need to be upheld.”
He insisted that China had been transparent and open throughout, acting quickly to share information about the disease with the WHO, but said the world needed to be able to respond more quickly in future.
Xi also pledged $2bn in financial support over the next two years to help deal with Covid-19, especially in developing countries. China will also make any self-developed Covid-19 vaccines a “public good” to help with the efforts to curb the pandemic, he said.
Calling the pandemic “the most serious global public health emergency since the end of the second world war”, Xi said: “All along we have acted with openness and transparency and responsibility.”
He repeatedly directed his remarks to Africa, highlighting how much his country was doing to help the continent develop its health systems and break the shackles of debt.
The WHO director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he would set up the independent evaluation at the earliest appropriate moment, adding that it would look into the responsibility of all actors in good faith. The greatest failing, he said, would be not to seek to learn lessons. Short-term amnesia plagued the world’s approach to global health, he said.
Previous WHO inquiries into past pandemics have been hard-hitting, but have tended to shy away from criticising individual countries’ performances, preferring instead to propose structural reforms. The WHO has for years debated the degree of autonomy nation states are allowed in terms of cooperating with WHO advice or recommendations. There is, however, a clear duty to keep the WHO promptly informed of potential pandemics.
Any inquiry is unlikely to report before the US presidential election in November, so giving Donald Trump and China latitude to continue to publicise conspiracy theories about the source of the virus.
Tedros had invited both Xi and Trump to take part in a virtual summit, but Trump did not respond.
“The idea was to bring the two superpower leaders together in solidarity to fight the pandemic, and to do so at this historic world health assembly, as well as to try to create a sort of rapprochement in the increasing ‘cold war’ between China and America,” said a source familiar with the invitation.
Asked about his lack of response, Trump said at a White House event: “I chose not to make a statement today. I’ll be giving them a statement, sometime in the near future, but … I think they [the WHO] have done a very sad job in the last period of time.”
The US was isolated in its hostility to the WHO, with even its closest ally, Australia, joining the chorus of support for the organisation’s central role in overseeing the global response to the pandemic and calls to end the “hit and miss” funding of the UN body. Trump has suspended all payments to the WHO pending a review into its alleged “China-centric leadership” and ineffectiveness. His aides have been discussing continuing to make a minimal payment so in part to retain influence over any inquiry. Trump said on Monday he would make a decision about WHO funding soon.
The US health secretary, Alex Azar, told the assembly that the virus had spun out of control due to the WHO failings.
“There was a failure by this organization to obtain the information that the world needed, and that failure cost many lives,” he claimed.
Without naming China, Azar added: “In an apparent attempt to conceal this outbreak, at least one member state made a mockery of their transparency obligations, with tremendous costs for the entire world.
“We saw that WHO failed at its core mission of information sharing and transparency when member states do not act in good faith. This cannot ever happen again.”
In a hard-hitting speech, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, said recent weeks had seen many expressions of international solidarity, but very little practical action. “We are all paying the price for implementing contradictory strategies,” he said.
He warned the disease had spread across the world, and was now heading for developing countries where he predicted it would be even more devastating.
He said the WHO was irreplaceable and needed enhanced support, arguing: “We are as strong as the weakest health system.”
An inquiry to look back fully into how everyone reacted, he said, should wait until we have turned the page. “Now is not the time,” he insisted, arguing: “Now is the time for unity. We stand together, or we fail.”
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, said the only priority worth talking about was ending the disease. The time demanded “freedom from complacency and unfounded accusations”, a remark that could be directed at Washington’s repeated claim that China may have deliberately spread the virus in the west.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, threw her support behind the WHO, saying everyone needed to look at the sustainability of its financing.