By Dan De Luce, Robert Windrem and Abigail Williams



The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the inherent weaknesses of the World Health Organization, which has no authority to force foreign governments to divulge medical information or open doors to its hospitals and labs, public health experts and foreign diplomats say.

The Trump administration and Republican lawmakers have lashed out at the U.N. agency for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, accusing it of helping China conceal the extent of the outbreak at a critical early stage by relaying information from Beijing without sufficient caveats.


But public health experts and foreign diplomats said that although the WHO has often displayed a deferential tone to China during the outbreak, it is misleading to suggest it has the power or the leverage to force Beijing or any other foreign government to share information or grant access to medical facilities.

"There's no power that WHO has that would have enabled it to uncover any lack of transparency on the part of China," said Lawrence Gostin, director of the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University.

"That's been the case ever since WHO's founding in 1948. They are always subject to the powers of sovereign states, to be invited to their territories or excluded from their territory, and whether that country's going to be opened or closed."


China's failure to share relevant information about the virus from the outset meant that the world was put at much greater risk, but the blame lies with Beijing not a U.N. agency with a broad mandate and no authority to enforce it, he added.

The WHO, constrained by rules that rely on the goodwill of its 194 member states, faced a dilemma. Instead of confronting Beijing and losing any prospect of cooperation, it sought to coax Beijing into granting access, public health experts and diplomats said.

"It was a tactical decision, and it was probably the only way to get access. But the optics are uncomfortable," said one European diplomat.


The organization's effusive praise of China and its apparent reluctance to criticize Beijing publicly has triggered fierce criticism from Trump and others, who accuse the U.N. organization of being an accomplice to an alleged cover-up.