By Henry I. Miller and Jeff Stier
The two-years-plus of the COVID-19 pandemic should be a wakeup call that there is something very wrong – irreparable, even – at the chronically inept World Health Organization (WHO). Two recent transgressions show that the bureaucrats there are not getting any smarter.
The first is almost inconceivable. Medicago, a Canadian company, developed a COVID-19 vaccine synthesized in the Nicotiniana plant, a relative of tobacco. In clinical testing, it showed efficacy against all variants studied prior to the emergence of Omicron of 71%, and for the Delta variant specifically of 75%.
Health Canada approved the vaccine for domestic use in February, but its distribution around the world encountered a bizarre obstacle: the WHO said it would not even consider approving the vaccine for wider use because of the manufacturer’s ties to U.S.-Swiss tobacco company behemoth Philip Morris International, which owns a roughly one-third equity stake in Medicago.
Although wealthy countries currently have plenty of COVID-19 vaccines available, the WHO authorization of the Medicago vaccine, Covifenz, is critical, because only then can the vaccine be part of the WHO’s own COVAX global vaccine program for low- and middle-income countries. It would be especially advantageous to the countries lacking sophisticated medical infrastructure, because, unlike many of the other COVID-19 vaccines, Covifenz doesn’t require stringent (cold) storage conditions.
It remains to be seen whether a work-around, such as Philip Morris divesting itself from partial ownership of Medicago, can be found, or whether the WHO’s intransigence will prolong misery and death in the very countries that its COVAX program is supposed to benefit.
The second recent WHO blunder is that the (deservedly) much-vilified architect of Sweden’s disastrous, irresponsible pandemic management plan, state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, is now at – wait for it! – the WHO.
These missteps shouldn’t come as a surprise; after all, the WHO is a component of the relentlessly incompetent and politicized United Nations. There are so many examples of U.N. self-inflicted wounds, perhaps most notable its abject inability to respond effectively to Russia’s barbaric, genocidal invasion of Ukraine. But there are so many more; for example, the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti – the first in the country’s history – caused by a sewage leak from a base of U.N. peacekeepers who were there to help after an earthquake earlier in the year. The waste fouled Haiti’s principal river, sickened hundreds of thousands and led to at least 10,000 deaths. (And the U.N. has failed to make good on its commitments to provide compensation.)
But let’s focus on the WHO and COVID-19. From the beginning, many U.S. government officials, health experts, and analysts have raised concerns about the WHO’s bungled response to the pandemic, accusing it of being too trusting of the Chinese government, which initially tried to conceal the outbreak in Wuhan. Rather than taking Beijing to task for its initial attempts at a cover-up, the WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for his “very rare leadership” in showing “transparency” in the Chinese Communist Party’s response to the virus.
Taro Aso, Japan’s deputy prime minister and finance minister, went so far as to deride the WHO as the “Chinese Health Organization” because of what he described as its overly close ties to Beijing. There is no question that the organization and its leader were inappropriately slow to declare a global health emergency and, thereafter, a pandemic.
The most recent irresponsible actions by the WHO should finally cause the U.S., as the WHO’s largest donor, to assert significant oversight.
Global public health is consistent with American interests not only because we are a benevolent nation, but also because, as COVID-19 has reminded us, epidemics that are not addressed at the source may find their way to our shores. Effective global public health protection is critical, and we would be derelict if we failed to provide stewardship along with our dollars.
American taxpayers are the largest contributors to the WHO’s approximately $9.4 billion budget. Like other U.N. organizations, the WHO is plagued by persistent wasteful spending, a disregard for transparency, pervasive incompetence, and a failure to adhere to even basic democratic standards. Its Western hemisphere subsidiary, the Pan American Health Organization, supports antidemocratic regimes and actually weakens public health rather than strengthening it.
Why are incompetence and profligacy rife within the sprawling WHO? In several respects, it’s in the United Nations’ DNA.
First, the U.N. is essentially a monopoly. Inefficiency and incompetence cannot be punished by “consumers” of its products or services, spurning the U.N. and patronizing a competitor. On the contrary, it is not uncommon in these kinds of bureaucracies for failure to be rewarded with additional resources. Unlike in the private sector, where failed projects are shut down, if a program at the U.N. isn’t working, the bureaucrats clamor to expand it.
Second, U.N. officials are rewarded for making the bureaucratic machinery run – for producing reports, guidelines, white papers and agreements, and for holding meetings – whether or not they are of high quality or make sense. Often, they aren’t of high quality and don’t make sense: The bureaucrats often sacrifice quality and veracity for consensus.
Third, there’s neither accountability nor transparency at the U.N. There’s no U.S. Government Accountability Office, House of Lords Select Committee, or parliamentary oversight, and no electorate to kick the U.N. officials out when they are dishonest or incompetent or act contrary to the public interest.
Finally, the organization is no meritocracy: The country or region of origin of a leadership candidate seems to be more important than his or her credentials and qualifications. Moreover, countries seconding staff to the WHO understandably don’t send their best people. Witness Sweden’s Tegnell moving to the WHO, as described above.
The WHO’s history is ugly. Under its polio eradication policy in Syria, health care workers were allowed to work only with the brutal, corrupt regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but not in rebel-held areas. Thus, although the WHO was effective in containing polio within government territory, the disease was able to spread throughout rebel areas. In addition, the organization has been widely condemned for failing to raise the alarm about the dangers of Ebola in West Africa in 2014.
The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is yet another problem, routinely promulgating inaccurate, alarmist reports that are contradicted by scientists and regulators worldwide. When a U.S. congressional committee attempted to investigate charges of corruption and conflicts of interest, IARC rebuffed the effort.
Calls for Dr. Tedros, the WHO director-general, to resign are insufficient. He isn’t the entire problem; he’s only the latest symptom of an irreversibly corrupt institution.
The United States is by far the largest funder of U.N. activities. In 2020, it contributed more than $11 billion, which accounted for just under one-fifth of the organization’s collective budget. Unless an effective oversight and auditing entity can be created, U.S. funding should end, and be given instead to entities we can hold accountable.
After describing some of the atrocities committed by Russian troops in his country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told the United Nations Security Council during a virtual meeting on April 5 that Russia should be removed from the council or it should be dissolved. Dissolution, or elimination, would be appropriate as well for many other organizational components, including the WHO; the U.N. Environment Program; the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization; the U.N. Human Rights Council; and other anti-scientific, corrupt, and underperforming United Nations agencies.
In the meantime, in the interest of increasing the WHO’s transparency, we have a suggestion: The Latin motto on its official seal should be, Aperto Ore, Pede Inserta; or in English: Open Mouth, Insert Foot.