World Health Organization adviser Bruce Aylward attends a press conference at the WHO headquarters in Geneva on February 25, 2020.
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
A parliamentary committee scrutinizing the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is working to overcome a hurdle in its effort to get key World Health Organization adviser Bruce Aylward to testify about the agencys track record in this outbreak.
Matt Jeneroux, a Conservative MP who is vice-chair of the Commons health committee, said members were informed the WHOs legal counsel has said Dr. Aylward cannot testify unless he receives authorization from WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
He said as of Thursday the committee was still waiting to hear whether this permission had been granted or whether a way around this could be found.
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Dr. Aylward, a Canadian epidemiologist who headed a WHO team to Chinas Hubei province, the epicentre of the pandemic, was scheduled to testify before MPs two weeks ago but cancelled on short notice, citing an urgent matter related to COVID-19. MPs on the Commons health committee then sent a new invitation, asking him to testify by teleconference on April 29.
The committee also notified the WHO adviser that it would be willing to use a rarely-used parliamentary power of summons if necessary. Please note that disregarding this invitation could result in the committee deliberating the issuance of a summons for your appearance, the note sent to Dr. Aylward last week said.
NDP health critic Don Davies, also a member of the Commons health committee, said he remains very hopeful Dr. Aylward will testify as early as April 29. My understanding is Aylward is co-operative and willing to testify, he said. He said hes hopeful the WHO will either grant permission or somehow the adviser will be able to testify without permission.
It looks like its still a work in progress.
Officials at the WHO would not say Thursday whether Dr. Aylward would testify before MPs. WHO has received a request for technical information and is giving it due consideration, spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic said in an e-mail.
The WHO is facing increasing questions about its relationship with China and whether the organization properly notified and prepared the world for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The WHO has defended its conduct, noting it alerted the public in early January. But the organization has refused to denounce China for concealing information about COVID-19, even after it became clear authorities there had muzzled doctors.
Valerie Percival, a public-health expert who has previously worked for Canadas foreign affairs department as well as the International Crisis Group think tank, said the WHO does a lot of good work. But, she said, its not a particularly agile agency and she feels that responsibilities for pandemic planning and declaring public-health outbreaks should be reassigned to a new organization that could react more quickly.
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Theyre like a tanker in the ocean and theyre not nimble enough to be able to respond effectively to outbreaks, Prof. Percival said.
This is not WHO bashing. There [are] great things about that organization and there is a lot of really wonderful, smart, dedicated people who have been getting so little sleep in the last few months … but the governance structure is clumsy,” she said, adding it was not designed for rapid responses in an interconnected world where the response time for public- health measures needs decisive and rapid action.
She said there are examples of other international organizations, such as the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, which was itself spun off from the WHO, that function less bureaucratically. Its very challenging for large bureaucracies to be able to pivot quickly, she said.
Prof. Percival said it would have been better if the WHO had been able to challenge China a bit more, acknowledging that can be difficult because the organization needs co-operation from member states on other areas such as delivering universal access to basic health services. We know illegal wildlife trade is really bad for global health and I am not sure the degree to which organizations such as the WHO were challenging member states enough on that.”
The WHOs Dr. Aylward has praised Chinas response to COVID-19, even telling a media briefing in February: If I had COVID-19, Id want to be treated in China.
The Conservatives Mr. Jeneroux would like Dr. Aylward to explain why the WHO has been shutting out Taiwan, which has outshone many countries in its fight against COVID-19, by barring it from participating in the organization even as an observer.
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Taiwan is not a member of the WHO because of the objections of China, which claims the democratic and separately ruled island as its own. That means Taiwan is excluded from emergency meetings and important global briefings for WHO members.
Liberal MP Ron McKinnon, who chairs the Commons health committee, could not immediately be reached for comment.
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