How the World Health Organization fumbled its preparations for a global pandemic

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Credit: Reuters/Denis Balibouse

The WHO spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars honing a globe-spanning system of defenses against a pandemic it knew would come. But the virus moved faster than the United Nations agency, exposing flaws in its design and operation that bogged down its response when the world needed to take action.

The WHO relied on an honor system to stop a viral cataclysm. Its member states had agreed to improve their ability to contain infectious disease epidemics and to report any outbreaks that might spread beyond their borders. International law requires them to do both.

Time and again, countries big and small have failed to do so. The WHO, which isn’t a regulatory agency, lacks the authority to force information from the very governments that finance its programs and elect its leaders. It can’t parachute disease-fighting teams to an outbreak unless a government invites it. And years of painstakingly worded treaties, high-level visits and cutting-edge disease surveillance—all meant to encourage good-faith cooperation—have only bitten around the edges of the problem.

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A review of the WHO’s initial response to the pandemic, based on interviews with current and former WHO staff, public-health experts advising it and officials who work with it, suggests that the agency’s bureaucratic structure, diplomatic protocol and funding were no match for a pandemic as widespread and fast-moving as Covid-19.

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