Home / Science / Mission impossible? WHO director fights to prevent a pandemic without offending China | Science

Mission impossible? WHO director fights to prevent a pandemic without offending China | Science

Mission unimaginable? WHO director fights to prevent a pandemic without offending China | Science



WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (middle) helped save a critically injured well being employee within the Democratic Republic of the Congo final 12 months.


GENEVA—On 2 January 2019, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus confronted a life-or-death determination. The director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) had spent New Year’s Eve in Bunia, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), to increase the morale of workers preventing the second largest Ebola epidemic ever. As he was preparing to board a helicopter to Uganda, the place he was scheduled to meet Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, Tedros had to determine whether or not to carry alongside a younger Congolese man named Charles Lwanga-Kikwaya.

The day earlier than, a group of Ebola vaccinators was attacked by a group of younger women and men—one in every of many assaults WHO workers has had to endure—and Lwanga-Kikwaya had been hit on the pinnacle with a massive stone. His harm was critical, says Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, who accompanied Tedros and examined the affected person. “We quickly decided we either had to evacuate him or he was going to die,” says Farrar, who skilled as a neurologist.

But the pilot refused to make a detour in a battle zone; protocol dictated that Tedros, as a VIP, had to be flown to his state go to first. After a tense standoff with Tedros and a number of other cellphone calls, the pilot relented and agreed to fly Lwanga-Kikwaya and the three worldwide guests to the closest hospital. “It was interesting to watch Tedros’s style,” says Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, who was additionally current. “Just quietly, determinedly saying, ‘No, we must leave with this man.’ Just that ability to be persistent but respectful.” “He’s stubborn, he won’t take no for an answer,” Farrar says. “You need that sometimes in a leader.”

Lwanga-Kikwaya survived and went again to work a few weeks later. Tedros, who’s Ethiopian and the primary African to head WHO, says he noticed the confrontation as a take a look at. “You cannot care about millions if you don’t care about a poor human being dying in front of you,” he says.

Today, Tedros is going through a far greater problem: a lethal virus that’s spreading from China around the globe at an astonishing velocity. On 30 January, Tedros formally declared the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) a world well being emergency. Just the week earlier than, the variety of confirmed instances had exploded from 830 to nearly 8000. Today, it has gone up to greater than 40,000 instances in 25 international locations. Flights have been suspended, cruise ships quarantined, and each day life in massive elements of China introduced to a standstill. Many scientists now assume the outbreak will turn into a full-fledged pandemic that would lead to tens of millions of infections and world disruption.

Tedros took workplace on 1 July 2017 with an bold to-do record: Reform WHO, strengthen evidence-based decision-making, spotlight the well being affect of local weather change, and supply 1 billion extra individuals with well being protection. But the 2019-nCoV epidemic will overshadow all of his acknowledged priorities, says Ashish Jha, a world well being researcher on the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. How Tedros handles the disaster will form not simply his legacy, however the way forward for his group, Jha says. “This is the moment! How things go over the next weeks and months will end up having a very big impact on how much the world values WHO.”

This is the second! How issues go over the subsequent weeks and months will find yourself having a very massive affect on how a lot the world values WHO.

Ashish Jha, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Yet the disaster has put Tedros “in a near-impossible situation,” says Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. If Tedros desires WHO to keep knowledgeable about what’s occurring in China and affect how the nation handles the epidemic, he can’t afford to antagonize the notoriously sensitive Chinese authorities—regardless that it’s clear the nation has been lower than absolutely clear in regards to the outbreak’s early levels, and maybe nonetheless is. Critics say that stance places WHO’s ethical authority in danger. “WHO has never faced such a fast-moving epidemic in a country that is quite that powerful and, in many ways, closed,” Gostin says.

And the epidemic comes on prime of different challenges inside and out of doors WHO. Its funds hasn’t stored up with its duties; misinformation about vaccines is spreading like wildfire; and main politicians stay in denial about local weather change, which may have profound results on public well being. Meanwhile, multilateral organizations like WHO are underneath fireplace from populists and nationalists. “All the global trends are against what WHO was founded for,” Gostin says. “The organization in the year 2020 is in the middle of a hurricane, hunkering down.”

Minister of well being in Ethiopia

Tedros’s first reminiscences of WHO are from a extra hopeful time. Growing up in Asmara, then a part of Ethiopia and now the capital of Eritrea, he noticed posters promoting WHO’s world marketing campaign to eradicate smallpox—a landmark public well being feat achieved in 1980. After learning biology and dealing in public well being, Tedros acquired a WHO scholarship to examine on the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

He obtained a Ph.D. in neighborhood well being, went again to Ethiopia to head a regional well being bureau, and rose to minister of well being. During his tenure, from 2005 to 2012, he’s credited with build up a community of greater than 40,000 feminine well being staff in rural areas who dispense malaria medicine, immunize youngsters, and take care of pregnant girls. Deaths from AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis dropped by greater than half on his watch. After four years as Ethiopia’s minister of overseas affairs, Tedros ran for the place of WHO’s director-general in 2017, with backing from the African Union.

Tedros put common well being protection on the coronary heart of his marketing campaign. He first had medical insurance, a luxurious unavailable to him in Ethiopia, whereas learning in Denmark for four months in 1988. But he believes international locations with few assets can supply common protection as properly—even when they will solely afford to supply fundamental care. “Half of the world’s population doesn’t have access to essential health services. I just refuse to accept that,” he says. Tedros beat the United Kingdom’s David Nabarro with assist from 133 out of 186 member states within the last voting spherical.

Tedros greets Ebola response workers—utilizing an “elbow bump” as an alternative of a handshake to cut back the chance of an infection—within the DRC in June 2019.


Halfway into his first 5-year time period, he occupies a spacious workplace on the seventh ground of WHO’s headquarters right here. Presents from visiting dignitaries are on show: a conventional white hat from Afghanistan, a miniature picket boat from Tuvalu, a little lighthouse from the Maldives. But when Science visited in December 2019, Tedros described a darker world. Violence was surging within the DRC; Ebola, nearly underneath management, was spreading once more; and well being staff had been nonetheless being attacked. The night earlier than, he had had a technique name with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. “The most important thing now is security,” Tedros stated.

A really completely different virus was occupying him, too: the misinformation about vaccines unfold by means of social media. The day earlier than, WHO had launched the variety of deaths in 2018 from measles, a illness for which low-cost and efficient vaccines exist: 144,000, a 14% improve from 2017. “This is crisis level already, and Facebook and Twitter or other social media groups should really understand this,” Tedros stated. He stated he has requested social media giants to do extra to battle false data. (Today, WHO has began to work with the businesses to flag misinformation and rumors about 2019-nCoV and direct customers to WHO’s web site.)

During his tenure to date, Tedros has been prepared to take dangers—and never simply by taking a dozen journeys to the Ebola battlefield. One of his first strikes was to identify Zimbabwe’s longtime dictator Robert Mugabe a WHO “goodwill ambassador.” Tedros says the suggestion got here from African international locations, the place some nonetheless revere Mugabe—who died in September 2019—as an anticolonial hero, and that he had merely proposed him for the respect. “We only started the process,” Tedros says. After a huge backlash, he withdrew Mugabe’s identify. “He corrected it immediately and that’s what leadership is about,” says Canadian well being researcher Peter Singer, one in every of Tedros’s closest aides.

Fighting outbreaks is just one of WHO’s duties, and till just lately, it did so primarily by coordinating different organizations’ work. After the sluggish response to the West African Ebola outbreak of 2013–16 triggered outrage, the company began to play a extra lively position. But to obtain its acknowledged mission—“the attainment by all people of the highest possible level of health”—WHO’s major job is to produce “norms and standards” that member states can implement, reminiscent of pointers for malaria remedy, coaching supplies for maternal well being staff, or insurance policies on opioid use.

Changing the DNA of the group

As a part of his reform plan for the group—a prime precedence, he says—Tedros has appointed extra girls, made the highest ranks extra various, and created new departments, together with one for “healthy populations.” As a former well being minister, he has a eager sense of the sensible wants of its member international locations, says Bernhard Schwartländer, his Cabinet chief. Tasks reminiscent of updating WHO’s record of important medicine had been prioritized; others, such because the “policy framework on managing psychosocial consequences of radio-nuclear emergencies,” had been dropped. “We are changing the DNA of WHO itself,” Tedros says. But the 72-year-old group has a sophisticated construction with six regional workplaces whose heads take pleasure in appreciable energy. “WHO is a massive tanker. You cannot turn it around easily,” Schwartländer says.

To many within the ranks, the transformation appears a unending course of. “He has significantly improved WHO’s core mission,” Gostin says. “But he has not been able to consistently bring WHO staff and partners with him, sometimes resulting in unrest.” Tedros acknowledges he has confronted inner resistance. “People get a bit nervous when they see that you have this heavy change agenda,” he says.

Big job, modest funds

“Assessed contributions,” or charges from member international locations, make up a small a part of the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) funds and have remained largely flat for 30 years. Donations have risen, however most are earmarked for particular objectives.

’90–’91’92–’93’94–’95’96–’97’98–’99’00–’01’02–’03’04–’05’06–’07’08–’09’10–’11’12–’13’14–’15’16–’17’18–’19’20–’2101234$5 billionDonationsAssessed contributionsWHO biennial fundsAssessed contributionsEarmarked donationsNon-earmarked donationsSources of the 2018–19 funds (%)*1781United StatesInvoice & Melinda Gates FoundationGAVIUnited KingdomGermanyOtherUnited NationsWorld BankEuropean CommissionRotary InternationalJapan15138745433335*knowledge up to 7 January 20192


One transfer that will get common reward, nonetheless, is the creation of the place of chief scientist. “This is a really important signal,” says Ilona Kickbusch, a world well being knowledgeable on the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. “Science is the bedrock of everything we do here,” says Soumya Swaminathan, an Indian pediatrician who has taken on the position. She says her division will concentrate on figuring out analysis gaps; she has additionally launched committees to take a look at the ethics of gene enhancing and synthetic intelligence in drugs and public well being.

To many exterior observers, what issues most is whether or not WHO will see a rise in its $2.5 billion annual funds, most of which doesn’t come as “assessed contributions”—basically international locations’ membership charges—however as donations from international locations or different donors (see graphic). They usually earmark their contributions for particular initiatives, reminiscent of eradicating polio, which limits WHO’s potential to set its personal priorities. Tedros additionally acknowledges the dangers of relying on a few massive donors. “If one of them refuses to continue funding, WHO could get into a serious shock,” he says. “It’s like a country which is dependent on oil.” So far, international locations have resisted plans to considerably elevate the assessed contributions. “I’m very positive about the changes that have happened, but a part of me wonders why that has not translated into a lot more funding and a lot more support,” Jha says. But Tedros factors out that WHO has simply developed an “investment plan” to entice new donors, and there have been some small will increase in donations.

In the December dialog with Science, Tedros emphasised that illness outbreaks are a fixed concern. “If there is a major outbreak, it’s not just a health problem. It can have economic, political, and social impact,” he warned. He didn’t know on the time that the most important emergency of his profession was already brewing in Wuhan, China.

Bending over backward

Two months later, WHO is in full disaster mode. Tedros and his prime aides meet daily to focus on the grim developments. Journalists from across the phrase name into each day press conferences, normally with Tedros himself behind the microphone. The battle towards Ebola had taught him a clear technique, he stated at one in every of these briefings: Fight the illness on the supply and check out to hold it from gaining a foothold elsewhere. “Focus on the epicenter,” Tedros stated. “If you have several epicenters, it is chaos.”

But the truth that the epicenter is in China complicates that activity. Tedros has bent over backward to keep on pleasant phrases with the rising superpower. He flew to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping on 28 January and praised the Chinese authorities for its efforts to battle the virus—regardless that the nation waited weeks earlier than permitting officers to inform the general public in regards to the outbreak.

Tedros says his go to to China led to three essential agreements: to battle the virus exhausting at its supply, to share knowledge, and to let an knowledgeable mission from WHO go to China. Yesterday night, he noticed off the mission’s advance workforce on the Geneva airport. In a name to Science afterward, Tedros defended China’s actions. “We appreciate the interventions they are taking,” he stated. “They are doing it not only for their own country, but for the rest of the world.” He stated a evaluate at some later time would assess whether or not China’s actions had been evidence-based and cheap. “We don’t want to rush now to blaming, we can only advise them that whatever actions they take should be proportionate to the problems, and that’s what they assured us.”

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (left), who met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on 28 January, has praised China for its efforts to management the brand new coronavirus.

Kyodo by way of AP Images

For some, that technique verges on appeasement. For occasion, Tedros has joined the Chinese authorities in criticizing different international locations for closing their doorways to vacationers from China, however has remained silent about the truth that China has closed off complete cities and penned in tens of tens of millions of individuals, a measure some scientists consider might not assist a lot and infringes on fundamental human rights. “I absolutely believe these measures should be called out, both for their human rights implication and their very limited public health impact,” says Alexandra Phelan, a world well being regulation knowledgeable at Georgetown’s Center for Global Health Science and Security. But, she provides, China’s cooperation is so essential that she will be able to see why Tedros won’t converse out. “I just worry what it means going forward.”

Some go additional. An on-line petition asking Tedros to step down has garnered greater than 300,000 signatures. But Jha disagrees. “To take on China in some aggressive way in the context of this, I’m not sure that would have been helpful,” he says. “I think Tedros has been pretty masterful at pushing China, engaging with China.” Farrar says China has finished fairly properly to date in a tough state of affairs, however the nation ought to launch extra fundamental epidemiological knowledge and viral sequences shortly. “To me, those are the two big gaps because those two allow you to track the epidemic,” he says. Tedros urges endurance as a result of China is overstretched. “So we get some information, we may not get other information. It may not be complete. But we understand that.”

Still, the epidemic has clearly proven the boundaries of the company’s affect. The 30 January declaration of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) is a living proof. Widely coated in media and perceived as an essential step—though critics say it got here too late—the declaration is basically symbolic. A PHEIC permits WHO to advocate for or towards journey restrictions, and international locations are supposed to observe its lead. But many, together with the United States, have ignored Tedros’s advice towards journey restrictions and have closed their borders to vacationers from China. A PHEIC “gives more moral authority to WHO,” Jha says—however the company has no energy of enforcement.

“A very emotional man”

In October 2018, on a stage on the World Health Summit in Berlin, Tedros was requested in regards to the third of the United Nations’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030: “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.” He informed the viewers a story about Hassab al Karim, a boy he had met a few days earlier than in a cardiac clinic in Khartoum, Sudan, that gives free care. Hassab had simply had surgical procedure for rheumatic coronary heart illness. “This 13-year-old boy could not have survived even a few years, but now I think he is hopeful that he will survive into adulthood and beyond,” Tedros stated. As he described how Hassab had smiled at him, his voice faltered and he stopped for a few moments. “So for me,” he stated, wiping away tears, “for me Hassab al Karim is SDG-3.”

It wasn’t the primary time Tedros had cried in public, and a few observers scoff at his shows of emotion. To others, that is his energy: that whilst head of a world forms touching billions of lives, he’s keenly conscious of people. He talks simply to medical college students, well being care staff within the subject, and sufferers. He often mentions his brother, who died younger, Tedros believes of measles. That loss taught him to see people when he reads one other staggering loss of life statistic, he says.

“Empathy is very important for Tedros. He is a very emotional man,” Kickbusch says. It’s too early to decide whether or not his tenure will find yourself a success, however one factor is definite, she says: “He is in it with his heart and his soul.”

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