Editor’s Note: Matthew M. Kavanagh is director of the global health policy and politics initiative at Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, assistant professor of international health, and visiting professor of law. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Even before a report on the origins of the Covid-19 outbreak was released Tuesday, some were faulting the World Health Organization for not securing more conclusive information and cooperation from China. But if the US and Europe want more, they need to engage in smarter global health diplomacy than they have so far.
The report, released by a panel of individual scientists tasked by the WHO to research the origins of the pandemic, suggests the SARS-CoV-2 virus very likely jumped from animals to humans, possibly linked to wildlife farms where it may have moved from bats to an intermediate species before infecting humans.
The report found that neither the Chinese claims that the virus was imported via frozen food nor Trump administration claims that it escaped from a laboratory are likely, but investigators did not have enough information to fully eliminate either theory.
This research has not settled the debate over the origin of the outbreak. But we should not be surprised. In the best-case scenario, researching the origin of outbreaks can take years. This is not the best case. During this pandemic, international cooperation has been undermined by US, European, and Chinese actions. It is clear from the what information is and is not in the report that Chinese officials have not yet shared enough data or allowed adequate research for firm conclusions – and the WHO has few tools to compel greater transparency.
Without more support, saddling the WHO with this technically difficult and politically fraught task could hamstring the organization during an ongoing pandemic. If we want independent investigations of outbreaks, the WHO or another entity needs to be given additional powers, and until then it is really up to powerful states to push China. But governments should not lose the opportunity to strengthen global health in the search for this virus’s origin.
Critics, including former Trump-administration officials, accuse the WHO of giving China too much influence over in the investigation. They suggest the WHO should do more to investigate Chinese labs and markets.
These criticisms, however, reflect a misunderstanding of the agency’s role and chronic tendency of member countries and political pundits to blame the organization for not doing things its member states have not empowered it to do. The WHO plays an indispensable, if imperfect, role addressing everything from AIDS, Ebola, and Covid-19 to chronic diseases. Weakening it helps no one, but that is a foreseeable result of putting an international organization in the middle of a conflict between major powers over how the pandemic started without the tools to resolve the issue.
Produced by a team of individual experts, half Chinese and half international, the report does not reflect the investigation or the conclusions of WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who upon receiving the report called for “future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing.”
In fact, member states have not given the WHO authority to conduct more independent investigations, unlike powers given to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), for example. There is no secret WHO intelligence-gathering force and, under international law, no threat of sanctions if China does not comply with WHO’s requests for information or access. The International Health Regulations, despite a lofty name and binding international legal status, give the WHO few powers in collecting and reporting data against the wishes of member states. The agency can privately use diplomacy with governments or critique countries publicly – but these only go so far.
Investigating how this pandemic began was always going to be difficult. No country likes outside prying. Imagine US politicians’ reaction to an international investigation of Covid-19 outbreaks connected to spring breakers in Miami. There are far higher stakes for China, a rising authoritarian power where information is tightly restricted and the government is working hard to avoid reputational damage from this pandemic. The Chinese government controlled the itinerary of the scientific team who, according to the WHO, also reported difficulties in gaining access raw data on thousands of patients.This lack of transparency does not, of course, prove a cover-up, but neither does it convince the world China has nothing to hide.
American, European and other governments did little to strengthen the WHO’s hand. Then-President Donald Trump’s xenophobic “China virus” rhetoric built China’s mistrust of the motives of US and Western governments’ intentions. Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross overtly talked about how the outbreak in China could bring jobs to the US. Trump’s very public claims that the virus came from a Chinese lab, without offering evidence, heightened tensions between Beijing and Western governments at the same time WHO was trying to negotiate terms for the research. At the height of tensions, the US government knee-capped the WHO by moving to withdraw from the organization as Trump tried to redirect blame for the weak US Covid-19 response.
European countries, wary of confronting China and weary of US actions, had little stomach for hardball diplomacy with China on this origins study – not while the US was attacking the WHO and China was retaliating against Australia for calling for an independent investigation of the outbreak’s origin.
WHO officials, in hindsight, might have acted more tactically vis-a-vis China. The WHO’s Executive Board, for example, might have been used as a forum to push China to commit to greater access at the outset.
Ultimately, though, the US and other major powers cannot outsource China diplomacy on this issue to the WHO. The organization has gotten more from China than anyone else, including epidemiology data collected early in the outbreak that confirms that the virus emerged in the fall of 2019. But greater access to raw data and potentially sensitive interviews with Chinese personnel are unlikely without the type of strategic diplomacy only nation states can take on.
Get our free weekly newsletter
Rather than further weakening the WHO, the US should build it up. The Biden-Harris administration has re-engaged with the organization and could increase funding and political support. The US could back giving the organization investigative powers or, perhaps better, a new body could be given that task to avoid confusing the WHO’s mission. Strengthening the WHO’s capacity for proactive detection of emerging viruses could lessen the need to chase the origins of the next pandemic. Cooperating to build future-focused global health systems may be a more fruitful engagement with China than is likely to come investigating this pandemic.
We may not know the true origin of this virus for years, if ever. But, nonetheless, we need a stronger, more capable WHO, focused on responding to this pandemic and preventing the next one, not a WHO immobilized by conflict between major powers.