As the coronavirus spread around the world, few institutions distinguished themselves as badly as the World Health Organization. When the public needs reliable medical information, the WHO has failed again and again.
When there might have been a chance early on to contain the virus, the WHO played a key role supporting efforts by the Chinese government to cover up the danger of the disease.
On Jan. 14, it embraced China’s lie that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. On Jan. 22, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus claimed that the virus posed no threat to global public health. By the end of January, as China’s lies and cover-ups and silencing of whistleblower doctors became apparent, Tedros nonetheless praised the communist tyranny for its “transparency.”
As the virus invaded the U.S. and some people started wearing masks to reduce transmission, the WHO interceded to warn against the widespread use of masks. “There is no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any potential benefit,” Mike Ryan, WHO executive director of health emergencies, said in late March. “In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest the opposite in the misuse of wearing a mask properly or fitting it properly.”
Last Friday, after months during which mask-wearing became common, the WHO reversed itself, finally caught up and started advising people to wear masks in enclosed public places where social distancing was not possible. It said that masks “prevent a person who may actually have the disease from transmitting it to somebody else.” The rationale for the change was evidence that people can spread the disease before they develop symptoms.
So it surprised a lot of people when, on Monday, the WHO downplayed asymptomatic transmission of the virus. “From the data we have, it still seems to be rare that an asymptomatic person actually transmits onward to a secondary individual,” the WHO’s Maria Van Kerkhove said. “It’s very rare.”
If that were true, it would indicate that we had shut down the economy for three months for no good reason. After all, it was the idea that people who are showing no signs of illness could be infecting others that was used to justify the widespread closures of businesses and schools and severe limitations on social activity.
After the inevitable frenzied reaction to this astonishing announcement, the WHO backtracked a day later, and Van Kerkhove claimed she was misunderstood. She said asymptomatic transmission was “a big open question” and “really complex.” Then she downplayed her original statement.
“I was responding to a question at the press conference,” she said. “I wasn’t stating a policy of WHO or anything like that. I was just trying to articulate what we know. And in that, I used the phrase ‘very rare,’ and I think that that’s misunderstanding to state that asymptomatic transmission globally is very rare. I was referring to a small subset of studies.”
The purpose of a press conference is to clear up misconceptions and communicate medical information to the public. The WHO cannot meet even that low bar. Instead, when its officials speak, they create new confusion.
President Donald Trump has suspended aid to the WHO, which represents 20% of its budget. Perhaps it’s time to take that money and start a new global health organization that is capable of communicating the truth during an international health emergency.