WHO Director Says the World Should Have Listened to It About Coronavirus

The World Health Organization's Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has advised countries to consider the public health agency's recommendations when crafting their responses to the coronavirus pandemic. During WHO's latest press briefing in Geneva on Monday, Ghebreyesus said nations that have approached outbreak management in accordance with the organization's previous guidelines are currently "in a better position" than others.

Ghebreyesus suggested that some outbreaks could have been less extreme if government leaders adopted containment measures earlier to manage the virus' spread. He noted that when WHO declared an international health emergency on January 30, only 82 cases had been identified across 18 countries outside of China, with no deaths reported.

"The world should have listened to WHO then, carefully," he said, pointing out that nations could have implemented protocols to address the pandemic upon the declaration's release. "Every country could have triggered all its public health measures possible," Ghebreyesus added. "I think that suffices the importance of listening to WHO's advice."

When WHO's declaration was released, the organization shared its conclusions about China's handling of the initial outbreak and provided direction for other countries to protect their populations.

"The Committee believes that it is still possible to interrupt virus spread, provided that countries put in place strong measures to detect disease early, isolate and treat cases, trace contacts, and promote social distancing measures commensurate with the risk," WHO wrote in its January 30 statement, referencing guidance from advisers belonging to the agency's Emergency Committee.

"It is expected that further international exportation of cases may appear in any country," the statement continued. "Thus, all countries should be prepared for containment, including active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread."

During Monday's briefing, Ghebreyesus emphasized that WHO's recommendations are issued "based on the best science and evidence," though whether a nation acts on the advice provided is up to them.

"We don't have any mandate to force countries to implement what we advise them," he said. "Each country takes its own responsibility."

World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks at a March 9 news briefing. On Monday, Ghebreyesus said countries that followed WHO's early approach to containing the coronavirus are now "in a better position" than those that did not. AFP via Getty Images/FABRICE COFFRINI

WHO's response to the coronavirus pandemic has been criticized by President Donald Trump, who has accused the organization of intervening too late to thwart widespread transmission.

"The world depends on the WHO to work with countries to ensure that accurate information about international health threats is shared in a timely manner," Trump said during a White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing two weeks ago, when the president suspended U.S. funding to WHO.

He primarily took issue with the fact that its emergency declaration did not order restrictions on travel, which WHO said was not necessary based on information available at the time. In its January 30 statement, the agency asked that any administrations seeking to implement travel bans must inform WHO and cautioned against "actions that promote stigma or discrimination."

With over 980,000 cases of the coronavirus and more than 55,000 resulting deaths confirmed nationwide, the U.S. has been considered the pandemic's global epicenter since March. Its case and fatality counts comprise roughly 30 percent and 40 percent, respectively, of those reported by 185 nations across the world.