Washington Wednesday – The WHO’s China problem

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 17th of February, 2021. So glad you’re along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up: China and the origins of the pandemic. 

A team of researchers from the World Health Organization recently traveled to Wuhan, China.  That’s the original epicenter of Covid-19. The researchers were charged with finding out specifically from where the virus came.

EICHER: But the team left China without many answers and if anything more questions, including whether China will fully cooperate with the probe. 

Here’s White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki…

PSAKI: We’ve expressed our concerns regarding the need for full transparency and access from China and the WHO to all information regarding the earliest days of the pandemic.

EICHER: The WHO is a United Nations agency that is—by its definition “responsible for international public health.”

But some nations charge that the UN body is politicized and even corrupt. That was the Trump administration’s complaint when the United States last year pulled funding from the WHO. President Biden has since restored the money, saying he prefers to try to reform from within.

REICHARD: Joining us now to help us understand all this is Brett Schaefer. He studies international regulatory affairs for the Heritage Foundation. Brett, thanks for joining us.

BRETT SCHAEFER, GUEST: Thanks for having me on. 

REICHARD: Brett, there is some fresh news I want to get to here with regard to China and the WHO. But let me ask you first about President Biden’s decision to restore U.S. funding to it. You’re not a fan of that move. Why not? 

SCHAEFER: Well, I also did not agree with the Trump administration to withdraw last year. I think it’s pretty evident that the organization is very flawed, that it is subject to political pressure, and that the organization acted as a mouthpiece and a microphone for Chinese interests early on in the COVID-19 outbreak. And I think the Trump administration was absolutely justified in pointing this out and there’s a substantial amount of evidence that China was not transparent and was not cooperative in the COVID investigation by that organization or in terms of alerting other people in the international community. 

But I thought that the Trump administration was making some progress in getting support from other member states to reform the World Health Organization and be aggressive in investigating the outbreak itself. When they announced that they withdrew from the World Health Organization, it kind of scuttled those efforts and undermined the support that we had been rallying to our side. And I just thought the decision was premature. 

But the Biden administration’s announcement was a mistake in the opposite direction. The Trump administration had presented them—through its decision to withhold money and to withdraw from the organization—a lot of leverage. And the Biden administration essentially tossed that leverage aside when it decided to rejoin and not make its future engagement and support contingent on those reforms and contingent upon a robust investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

REICHARD: Last week, the WHO research team announced its preliminary findings. And there were several things they said that many in Washington found problematic. Tell us, what did they announce and what was the problem with it? 

SCHAEFER: Well, first of all, they haven’t released their official report, and so what you’re getting is essentially a few comments from a few members of the World Health Organization team that went to Wuhan. The Wall Street Journal actually has an editorial talking about some of the conflicts of interest on some of those expert members of that team, which may have led them to make comments to support their own perspectives. I think I would recommend that your listeners take a moment to read that article to get a full flavor for what some of those conflicts might entail. 

But that being said, the investigation itself was hindered from the start. China has had more than a year to go over this information, to scrub the data, to present it in the light that they wish to present it in. And we know from the beginning that China was not interested in transparency and cooperation. They punished journalists, they punished doctors who actually reported information that China found to be embarrassing. And this is over a year ago.

And so what we’ve seen in this investigation by the World Health Organization is evidence of China’s lack of good faith in this matter. And we are in essence not getting a clear picture or an unvarnished picture of what the situation really was. 

REICHARD: Okay, along those same lines: over the weekend, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the Biden administration does not believe the Chinese communist government allowed a transparent investigation. 

And the man who led the WHO mission basically confirmed those concerns. Peter Embarek sat down for an interview on Saturday with Science magazine. And let me just read to you what he said here and get your reaction. 

Embarek said “The politics was always in the room with us on the other side of the table. We had anywhere between 30 and 60 Chinese colleagues, and a large number of them were not scientists, not from the public health sector.” 

So Brett, I’m guessing this isn’t a shock to you? 

SCHAEFER: Absolutely not. From the very beginning China has made it very clear that this, from their perspective, is a political matter not a health matter. If they were really interested in being and focusing on the health issues at stake here, they would have been cooperative and transparent from the very beginning. But we know at the time they were not. They were telling the World Health Organization that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission when they knew that there was. And the World Health Organization—to its shame—was echoing these Chinese statements and delaying the ability of the rest of the world to respond to this threat in real time.

And it’s lack of cooperation, lack of transparency hindered the ability of the World Health Organization to accurately assess the threat and it really made other member states around the world—the United States included—but everybody else, obviously, more vulnerable to the spread of the disease particularly in the early stages when they were not yet aware of how truly serious this problem was.  

REICHARD: CNN reported this week that investigators from the WHO “have discovered signs the outbreak was much wider in Wuhan in December 2019 than previously thought.”

And the report said the WHO is “urgently seeking access to hundreds of thousands of blood samples from the city that China has not so far let them examine.” 

Brett, are we starting to see the WHO’s tone toward China shift a little bit? 

SCHAEFER: I think that they, frankly, were embarrassed because China spun the expert team’s initial comments as a vindication of China’s response to it. They had tried to say that the origins of the virus came from outside of China, perhaps transported or imported into the country from frozen food in an attempt to muddy the waters and imply that other countries were the real source of the disease. Most scientists dismissed that out of hand. But the expert team from the World Health Organization said that the potential for the virus to come from the Wuhan Institute for Virology was highly unlikely. But they gave credence to this rather spurious theory that China’s been promoting.

And so with this being spun in the various reports about the investigation in Wuhan, the World Health Organization realized that they had a public relations embarrassment on their hands. And the Director General Tedros of the World Health Organization had to in essence clarify things by saying that no theory’s been dismissed, including the possibility of it originating in the lab in Wuhan. 

REICHARD: What changes does the Biden administration want to see within the WHO? Has that been spelled out? 

SCHAEFER: The administration has not spelled that out in terms of what it wants to see in terms of reforms for the World Health Organization. There has been informal discussions between the United States and other major donors to the organization in terms of reforms. Those are largely conducted under the previous administration. But I think there’s going to be a lot of consistency in terms of where they would like that to go, including reforming the international health regulations to require states to admit these expert teams in when they have evidence of an outbreak, to provide raw data in a more transparent and ready fashion.

And so we need to not just focus on where this disease originated and how it got to have the impact that it did. But also, more importantly, to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.

REICHARD: Brett Schaefer studies international regulatory affairs for the Heritage Foundation. Brett, thanks so much for your time!

SCHAEFER: Thank you very much for having me on.

(Photo/Associated Press, Martial Trezzini/Keystone) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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