The World Health Organization must learn from its slow response to the new coronavirus and transform itself into a more effective organization. Unfortunately, the WHO punted on addressing many important issues at the May meeting of the World Health Assembly, its governing forum.
Nations including Japan, the U.S. and countries in Europe must lead in implementing critical reforms.
The WHO decided that a newly created working group will put together within the next year specific measures to make the organization more functional and effective. Earlier in May, the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response put forward a broad list of reforms and recommendations. The WHO should immediately act on these where possible.
Countries at the May meeting also agreed to begin considering a "pandemic treaty" to improve international cooperation and ensure preparedness for future pandemics. Full-scale discussions will begin at a special session of the World Health Assembly in November. WHO member countries should work with the European Union, which proposed the treaty idea, to create an effective framework as quickly as possible.
China has refused to allow Taiwan to participate in the World Health Assembly as an observer because Taipei does not recognize the "one China" principle. But political disputes should be set aside, and Taiwan allowed to join in future discussions.
The origin of the coronavirus still remains unknown. In March, the WHO issued a report that said it was extremely unlikely that the pandemic originated in a laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan. However, China did not provide adequate data and samples to researchers investigating on the ground.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom has said that further investigation is needed, but no such endeavor was mentioned in the documents resulting from the World Health Assembly's May meeting -- China opposed the use of the word "investigation." Preparing for the next virus requires that we know the origin of the one humanity is currently facing. The WHO should continue to seek China's cooperation in this.
More than 170 million people worldwide have been infected with COVID-19, and nearly 4 million have died. The WHO's slow initial response, its inability to gather information, and its lack of investigative capabilities have all contributed to the severity of the situation.
If the WHO cannot rethink its organizational structure even at this critical moment, its raison d'etre may be called into question.
Of course, international organizations cannot solve all problems, and some are cautious about increasing the WHO's authority.
One effective way to complement the WHO would be to establish regional networks for sharing information on infectious diseases and for assisting the distribution of medicines.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations Center for Infectious Diseases, to be established with Japanese support, is one example of this. More such proposals will help the world prepare for future outbreaks.