The European Union is to put forward proposals for a mechanism to learn from the coronavirus pandemic at the next meeting of the World Health Organization (WHO) but will stop short of calls from the US and Australia for a full international inquiry.

Brussels is trying to steer a course between the US and China in the blame game between the superpowers. Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, has blamed China for tens of thousands of deaths and demanded the WHO hold an inquiry into what it was told by the country about the outbreak. At issue in any inquiry would be timing and whether it would focus on what happened in China, China’s communications with the WHO or the WHO’s own response.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said the bloc’s proposal, to be put forward at a virtual meeting of the WHO on 18 May, would “provide access to how to learn more about the origin of this disease to prevent the next pandemic. Because it wasn’t going to be the last. Lessons will have to be learned from it.”

There is support within Europe, including from the UK, for an examination of the WHO’s role. The US has reduced its leverage in calling for a full inquiry, however, by suspending its payments to the WHO in a move widely seen as counterproductive.

Borrel said he had not seen evidence to support the sometimes contradictory US claims that the virus was deliberately or accidentally leaked from a state-run laboratory in Wuhan.

“I think that when the US president makes such strong allegations against someone, he has information that I don’t have,” he said in an interview with the European Council on Foreign Relations, a thinktank.

“I do not think it is the time for blame games or mutual reproach,” Borrel added. “This is the rhetoric we are somewhat hearing in the United States, calling the virus ‘Chinese’, or the ‘Wuhan virus’. I don’t think it is the moment to reproach anybody but instead to join forces against a problem that is everyone’s. If we don’t solve it everywhere, we won’t solve it anywhere.

The World Health Organization (WHO) was founded on the 7 April 1948, a date celebrated annually as World Health Day. As an agency of the United Nations, the organisation has developed into an international establishment which involves 150 countries and employs 7,000 people. WHO is responsible for the World Health Report and the World Health Survey. Since its establishment it has played a fundamental role in the eradication of smallpox, and currently prioritises diseases including HIV/AIDs, Ebola, Malaria and Tuberculosis. 

WHO takes a global responsibility for the co-ordinated management and handling of outbreaks of new and dangerous health threats – like the Covid-19 coronavirus.

The current WHO director general is Dr Tedros Adhamon Ghebreyesus, elected for a five year term in 2017. Prior to his election, Dr Tedros served as Ethiopia’s minister for foreign affairs. He also served as minister of Health for Ethiopia from 2005-2012 where he led extensive reform to the country’s health system.

WHO’s handling of the global pandemic has been criticised by US president Donald Trump, who announced in April that the US will no longer contribute to funding the agency.

Grace Mainwaring and Martin Belam

“We won’t get out of this crisis without very strong coordinated action between China, the United States, and Europe.”

Borrell said he did not believe that disinformation in the form of “dangerous information that is putting lives at risk” had come from the Chinese government but said that Europe should no longer be reliant on China for medical supplies, and suggested Africa could produce more for the EU. “It is not normal for Europe not to produce a single gram of paracetamol, and for 80% of antibiotic production to be concentrated in China,” he said.

There are likely to be disputes over the independence and terms of reference for any inquiry. The WHO commissioned both internal and external inquiries into the Ebola outbreak in west Africa 2014.

It also set up in August 2015 a committee to review nation state compliance with the WHO’s international health regulations, the means by which nation states are obliged to keep the WHO informed about health policies and epidemics. Non-compliance with the regulations is widespread, but there is little evidence that China did not keep the WHO informed during its coronavirus outbreak.

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