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Methinks the Lady doth Protest too Much

December 3, 2014
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The Fall of 2014 has been difficult for the Director-General of WHO, Dr. Margaret Chan, a Chinese national. Everywhere she turned in the popular media, such as Time Magazine and The Wall Street Journal, she found herself embroiled in controversy over her Organization’s slow response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa.  She posited that the reasons for her Organization’s fumbling response were due to an inadequacy of funds and staff shortages. On the latter item, she ignored the fact that the WHO has 100 staff in the three affected countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea; and 600 in the African Regional Office, in addition to 2,500 consultants.

On November 9, the Secretary General of the United Nations, wherein WHO is the lead agency for global health, wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post on the crisis. He showered credit on UN partners like the EU and the African Union for their timely and effective response … entirely ignoring any mention of  the WHO or offering a defense of Dr. Chan’s beleaguered status in the media.

Finally, when Dr. Chan could get no traction on her Ebola excuses, she lashed out at her critics through a bold headline in The Washington Examiner. On November 3, she publicly blamed the “profit-driven drug industry for [the] lack of [an] Ebola cure.” A week later, Lawrence Summers, chair of The Global Health 2035 Report commissioned by The Lancet, picked up her charge and repeated it in an op-ed in The Washington Post.  He supported Dr. Chan’s contention that “health system strengthening at $30 billion a year for the next two decades” would be an effective $600 billion fix to future Ebola-like pandemics. He went on to state that the drug industry doesn’t develop new drugs for markets in which there isn’t a demand in the developed world. He repeated Dr. Chan’s long standing policy position within the WHO in which she had warned the world of this emerging mis-match in the R&D portfolio of the drug industry.

In July of 2014, however, Dr. Chan had only positive things to say about China’s vaccine industry. She presented a paper in Beijing to the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) where she announced that it had “been assessed by WHO with outstanding results”.  She went on to comment that the “WHO is fully committed to support China  … this is the vision of CFDA and we have joint formal plans for realizing this vision.” In this manner, using the institutional imprimatur of the WHO, China’s mercantile interests on entering the international vaccine market can be advantaged—at the same time that other Member States are disadvantaged.

But on the Ebola crises in West Africa, China is AWOL, leaving the care and treatment and of patients in the hands of the U. S. Army and the Centers for Disease Control.  Obviously, China is pre-occupied with its agricultural investments throughout Africa, where it has over 1 million agricultural workers in the field. One would think that with 10,000 nationals in the three affected countries alone who are especially at risk to the Ebola virus, China, as the second largest economy in the world, would have a binding interest in being an active financial partner with the UN in combating this disease.

Dr. Chan publicly criticizes the international pharmaceutical industry as self serving, yet singles out for support vaccine producers in China. In so doing, she used Article II of the UN Charter, the source of the WHO’s legal authorities, regarding “the principal of sovereign equality of all its Members.” During the July reception in Beijing, as the Ebola crises was running out of control in West Africa, she was hosted by leadership of China’s Food and Drug Administration. From this venue, she vested her Organization’s hard-earned institutional legitimacy behind the commercial interests of one WHO Member: China, then later used that same legitimacy to disparage the reputation of all other Members.

Perhaps if Dr. Chan spent less time as a booster to promote China’s trade opportunities in the global vaccine industry, and protesting less those who credibly took her Organization to task for its feeble response to Ebola, she could then direct more of her considerable administrative capabilities to better controlling deadly epidemics. The WHO might once again be seen as ”the legitimate inter-governmental authority on global health matters.”


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