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World Health Assembly Convenes Online During COVID-19 Pandemic


It is no surprise that as members of the World Health Organization meet today, they are not meeting face to face. It would be odd if an agency fighting the pandemic encouraged the usual travel to the meeting in Geneva each year. Instead, the annual meeting is by video link. But the widely spaced participants have a lot to discuss. Many nations are focused on the search for a coronavirus vaccine. Some nations, including the United States, have questions about the WHO's own record in the pandemic's early days. NPR global health and development correspondent Jason Beaubien joins us. Jason, good morning.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What might that U.S. criticism lead toward?

BEAUBIEN: Well, the U.S. is really been pushing for a review of the WHO's handling of the COVID crisis. And one of the big questions at this meeting is whether or not that review should happen right now. There are other nations that also agree with that. But other people are saying that maybe you should be waiting until after this virus is more under control. Let's not divert attention. The U.S. is the largest funder of the WHO. And they say that the WHO bungled this response and failed to warn the world about how bad the initial outbreak was in Wuhan, China.

INSKEEP: A reminder there that this is about the United States accusing China of covering up information and also saying the WHO was too deferential to China, I believe.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. Chinese leader Xi Jinping actually was one of the first state leaders to address the assembly. The U.S. is sending a much lower level delegation to this video meeting. And the U.S. is calling for that review of the WHO's response. China is expected to block it. So this rivalry between the U.S. and China is expected to play a major role at this meeting.

INSKEEP: But at the same time, are there specific responses to the pandemic that this meeting can discuss?

BEAUBIEN: So the big issue is this - there's going to be a resolution that's been put forward. It pulls in some of this stuff that's been put forward in what's called the people's vaccine. Oxfam has been pushing this idea. The European Union is behind it. And they're seeking a commitment from all of the representatives at this meeting - 194 member states - to come together, work on a vaccine together and then commit that any vaccine that does get produced is made universally available around the world.

I was talking with Paul O'Brien with Oxfam. And he says the pandemic should actually make this World Health Assembly far simpler than other years. He says, you know, we've got 300,000 people dead. We're pushing 5 million cases. He says, the representatives at this meeting have one task in front of them.

PAUL O'BRIEN: And that is getting a vaccine out, manufactured, distributed and freely available to everyone as soon as possible. That's the agreement they need to reach. It's not hard. And they need to show the leadership to do so.

BEAUBIEN: But the big issue is that the U.S., so far, is not onboard with that. And the White House is pushing what they're calling Operation Warp Speed, which explicitly says that it's a Manhattan Project to develop a COVID vaccine for the American people. You know, the COVID pandemic is going to dominate this meeting. But how much progress we're going to get is really unclear.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm thinking about the pressure that has to be on this organization - the pressure for a vaccine, the pressure to coordinate different health responses around the world even though the WHO doesn't really have the authority to order people to do things. And then, of course, there's the U.S. criticism of their past performance. Is it...


INSKEEP: ...Possible that leaders of the WHO could fall under this pressure?

BEAUBIEN: You know, definitely, there's been a lot of criticism, not just from the U.S. This is the worst pandemic we've had in a hundred years. And, you know, there have been some calls for Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to step down. He's rejected those calls. There are a lot of other nations that have rallied to support him, saying that he's done the best he can, that the organization has stepped up. Dr. Tedros is from Ethiopia. He's particularly popular in Africa and many other low-income parts of the world. His term is a five-year term. And it doesn't expire until 2022. So we're really not expecting to see a leadership shakeup at this meeting.

INSKEEP: Jason, thanks for the update.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jason Beaubien. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.

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