LONDON — An independent panel appointed by the World Health Organization to review its coordination of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic will have full access to any internal U.N. agency documents, materials and emails necessary, the panel said Thursday as it begins the probe.
The panel’s co-chairs, former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, announced the 11 other members during a media briefing. They include Dr. Joanne Liu, who was an outspoken WHO critic while leading Medecins Sans Frontieres during the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Also named to the panel are: Dr. Zhong Nanshan, a renowned Chinese doctor who was the first to publicly confirm human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus; Mark Dybul, who led the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; and David Miliband, a former British foreign secretary who is CEO of the International Rescue Committee.
Clark said she and Johnson Sirleaf chose the panel members independently and that WHO did not attempt to influence their choices.
“We look forward to a period of intense work together at a key moment in history. We must honor the more than 25.6 million people known to have contracted the disease and the 850,000 and counting who have died from COVID-19,” Johnson Sirleaf said.
The panel scheduled its first meeting for Sept. 17 and plans to meet every six weeks between then and April. It expects to brief WHO on the group’s initial progress in November before presenting a final report next year.
WHO bowed to calls from most of its member states in May to launch an independent investigation of how it managed the international response to the coronavirus after the United States accused the U.N. health agency of mismanaging the early phase of the pandemic and colluding with China to hide the extent of the outbreak there.
President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of WHO earlier this year after calling the agency a “puppet” of China.
In June, the Associated Press found that China delayed releasing critical information to WHO, including the virus’ genetic sequence, for weeks in January. Internal recordings of WHO meetings revealed officials were frustrated at the lack of data-sharing while Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus publicly praised China for its speed and transparency.
To uncover how the global response to COVID-19 was managed, “we may ask decision-makers what kept them up at night,” Clark said. The panel also plans to examine what WHO and national governments might have done differently had they known more about the coronavirus.
She said WHO had “made it clear their files are an open book” and that the panel members would have access to any internal documents or materials they wanted, although no such requests have yet been made. As a U.N. agency, WHO is not subject to any freedom of information requests and does not routinely make its internal deliberations public.
The panel is financed by WHO and has its own staff in Geneva, led by Dr. Anders Nordstrom, a former acting director-general at the agency.