WHO chief taps ex-leaders to head COVID-19 response panel

The World Health Organization chief says the former president of Liberia and a former New Zealand prime minister will lead a panel to give an “honest assessment” of the global response to the coronavirus pandemic

GENEVA -- The head of the World Health Organization said Thursday that former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark will head a new panel tasked with giving “an honest assessment” of the global response to the coronavirus pandemic.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, whose agency is facing a U.S. pullout following Trump administration complaints about its early handling of the virus emergency, announced the appointments to the newly created Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response.

“I cannot imagine two more strong-minded, independent leaders to help guide us through this critical learning process to help us understand what happened — an honest assessment — and to help us understand also what we should do to prevent such a tragedy in the future,” Tedros said.

The WHO chief reiterated his calls for global unity and decried a general lack of leadership, but he made no reference to the Trump administration giving formal 1-year notice this week of its intent to withdraw the United States from the U.N. health agency.

The United States is the WHO's biggest donor, contributing $400-$500 million annually in recent years.

“My friends, make no mistake: The greatest threat we face now is not the virus itself. Rather, it’s the lack of leadership and solidarity at the global and national levels,” Tedros said at a weekly meeting of member states, which unusually was made public for the announcement of the panel appointments.

He said he would convene a special meeting of the WHO's executive board in September, before hosting the assembly of its 194 member states in November. The World Health Assembly, usually held in May, was cut short and held online this year due to the pandemic.

“We must be readying ourselves for future global outbreaks and the many other challenges of our time, such as anti-microbial resistance, inequality and the climate crisis," Tedros said. "COVID-19 has taken so much from us. But it’s also giving us an opportunity to break with the past - and build back better.”

The assembly in May called for a comprehensive evaluation of the WHO’s and the world’s response to the outbreak, and after repeated Trump administration criticism of the U.N. health agency over its handling of the pandemic and alleged deference to China, where COVID-19 first emerged.

Tedros suggested the panel would have an independent administration, update member states regularly on its progress and hold monthly meetings.

“This cannot be another blue-ribbon panel that issues a report that goes up on the bookshelf," he said. "We must come together in a global conversation to take these hard-won lessons and turn them into action.”

“My hope is that the defining crisis of our age will likewise remind all people that the best way forward and all the only way forward is together,” he said.