WHO Failed to Use Word 'Pandemic' Until March 11, China Acted Too Slow: COVID Panel

The World Health Organization failed to label COVID-19 a "pandemic" between January and March 2020, and that helped to spread the novel coronavirus after China "lost opportunities" to inform other countries of the outbreak, suggests a new U.N. panel report.

A panel of health experts led by former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark released a report Monday that highlights slow responses to COVID-19 in early 2020. While the WHO waits to see if President-elect Joe Biden will reverse Washington's decision to leave the U.N. health agency, experts say it was instrumental in slowing response efforts. The panel said WHO experts argued from January 22 until March 11 before finally describing the emerging pandemic as an international emergency. This failure to label COVID-19 a "pandemic" slowed responses globally, the report says.

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

The panel report did not criticize the WHO over recent reports the agency ignored the failed responses of some countries in what some experts say is an attempt to secure funding after President Donald Trump began withholding U.S. payments last year. A June Associated Press report found the organization repeatedly praised China's response in public while excoriating its response behind closed doors. These alleged acts of "collusion" between the WHO and Beijing were reiterated by Trump for months.

"Many countries took minimal action to prevent the spread [of COVID-19] internally and internationally," the panel report says.

Internal WHO disputes over how contagious the virus was, or if asymptomatic people could spread it, and a failure to announce a "pandemic" were all factors which led to the early spread of COVID-19, says the report. It adds that the Chinese government reacted too slowly—a claim Beijing adamantly denied, instead blaming the U.S., Japan and the United Kingdom.

A 10-member team of WHO officials and scientists arrived in Wuhan, China, last week after months of wrangling over how to conduct an investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

Sirleaf said the WHO lacked the adequate funding and authority which could have allowed the U.N. agency to assist countries in halting the spread of COVID-19. The Monday report does not blame any specific country for the outbreak, and many critics say this is part of the WHO's wider effort to suppress the failed responses of countries like Italy and China. Biden recently promised to overturn Trump's decision to cut off WHO funding.

A withdrawn WHO report on Italy's response last May warned the agency's top officials that "catastrophic" reputational damage would occur and millions of people could likely die.

Recordings of internal WHO meetings during the early months of the outbreak overheard top scientists describing some government responses in "macabre" language. One expert called the failed COVID-19 responses "an unfortunate laboratory to study the virus."

As of Tuesday, the coronavirus pandemic has led to the deaths of more than 2 million people around the world.

Newsweek reached out to the WHO and the Trump administration for additional remarks Tuesday morning.

china pandemic response who
A team from the World Health Organization arrived the Chinese city of Wuhan last week to investigate the origins of the novel coronavirus. Here a visitor takes pictures of a city model in an exhibition hall in Wuhan on January 15. CHINA RELEASE / Stringer/Getty Images