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China, WHO could have responded to virus outbreak faster: panel

In this Jan. 24, 2020 file photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, a medical worker attends to a patient in the intensive care unit at Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province. (Xiong Qi/Xinhua via AP)

GENEVA (Kyodo) -- An independent panel commissioned by the World Health Organization criticized China and the U.N. health agency for delays in their initial response to the novel coronavirus outbreak, according to a report it published Monday.

    The panel of experts going over the handling of the virus spread, which was first reported by Beijing at the end of 2019, said "there were lost opportunities" to act at an earlier date and that the WHO was also "underpowered" to do the job expected of it.

    "What is clear to the panel is that public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China in January," the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response said in its interim report, which will be submitted to the WHO's executive board on Tuesday.

    The panel also criticized the WHO for not establishing an emergency committee until Jan. 22, 2020, and waiting until Jan. 30 that year to declare a public health emergency of international concern, the maximum level of alert.

    The experts also said the WHO's ability to confirm reports of outbreaks and deploy personnel and resources to areas with outbreaks were "gravely limited," as member states lack incentives to cooperate within the organization.

    Cases of coronavirus were first observed in Wuhan, central China, in late 2019. In February 2020, the WHO said that over 12,000 cases of infection were identified in China but only 176 cases in the rest of the world, according to the report.

    The figures reported by the organization pointed to evidence of human-to-human transmission and a clear signal to countries with cases of infections that they needed to act quickly, the report said.

    "In far too many countries, this signal was ignored," it added.

    There have been over 95 million cases of infection worldwide and over 2 million deaths attributed to COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the virus, according to data by Johns Hopkins University.

    The panel was headed by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. It will submit its final report to the World Health Assembly, the WHO's decision-making body, in May.

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