The United States has criticised the World Health Organization's "failure" to obtain and provide vital information on Covid-19 that could have reined in the pandemic and saved many lives.

The World Health Organization kicked off its first ever virtual assembly today, but fears abound that US-China tensions could derail the strong action needed to address the coronavirus pandemic.

The World Health Assembly, which has been trimmed from the usual three weeks to just two days, today and tomorrow, is expected to focus almost solely on Covid-19, which in a matter of months has killed more than 310,000 globally, and infected nearly 4.7 million people.

"We must be frank about one of the primary reasons this outbreak spun out of control: there was a failure by this organisation to obtain the information that the world needed, and that failure cost many lives," US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said in a video address to the WHO's main annual meeting.

Mr Azar insisted the WHO had to change and become more transparent, as he backed an independent review of "every aspect" of the UN health agency's response to the pandemic.

Washington is locked in an increasingly bitter spat with Beijing over the new coronavirus pandemic, while it has also taken aim at the WHO.

The outbreak, which emerged in China late last year, has killed and infected more people in the United States than in any other country by far.

Washington has suspended its funding to the WHO, accusing it of being too close to Beijing, and covering up and mismanaging the pandemic.

"In an apparent attempt to conceal this outbreak, at least one member state made a mockery of their transparency obligations, with tremendous costs for the entire world," said Mr Azar.

"We saw that the WHO failed at its core mission of information sharing and transparency when member states do not act in good faith.

"This cannot ever happen again. The status quo is intolerable. WHO must change, and it must become far more transparent and far more accountable."

US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar with US President Donald Trump

Mr Azar said that while countries were focused on the immediate response to the pandemic, they needed a "more effective WHO right now" to help win the fight.

Earlier, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opened the event, lamenting that a number of countries had ignored the recommendations of the WHO.

"Different countries have followed different, sometimes contradictory, strategies and we are all paying a heavy price," he warned in a video address.

WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is also addressing the virtual assembly, as are a number of heads of state, including Xi Jinping of China, government chiefs and health ministers.

Tedros said on Friday that the event would be "one of the most important (World Health Assemblies) since we were founded in 1948".

But the chance of reaching agreement on global measures to address the crisis could be threatened by steadily deteriorating relations between the world's two largest economies over the pandemic.

US President Donald Trump last week threatened to cut ties with China, where the outbreak first emerged late last year, over its role in the spread of Covid-19, and has repeatedly made unproven allegations that the virus originated in a Chinese lab.

He has also suspended funding to the WHO over accusations it initially downplayed the seriousness of the outbreak, and was kowtowing to Beijing.

Despite the tensions, countries hope to adopt a resolution by consensus urging a joint response to the pandemic.

The resolution, tabled by the European Union, calls for an "impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation" of the international response to the coronavirus crisis.

Consultations around the text concluded last week after "tough" negotiations, according to Nora Kronig, who heads the international affairs division of Switzerland's public health office.

After several days, a tentative agreement was reached to approve the resolution, which also calls for more equitable access for tests, medical equipment, potential treatments and a possible future vaccine.

An EU source hailed the draft as "ambitious", and pointed out that if it does indeed pass by consensus as expected, it would mark the first time a global forum has achieved unanimous support for a text on the Covid-19 response.

The source said countries had not shied away from thorny topics, including a call for more WHO reform after determining that its capacities "have proven insufficient to prevent a crisis of this magnitude".

The resolution also calls for the WHO to work closely with other international agencies and countries to identify the animal source of the virus and figure out how it first jumped to humans.

While diplomats have agreed in principle on the draft resolution, observers voiced concerns that in the current politicised atmosphere, some countries might still choose to break the consensus next week.

"My hope is that we will be able to join consensus," US Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva Andrew Bremberg said Friday.

The United States and Europe are at loggerheads over future vaccine access, while Washington has also accused China of trying to steal US immunisation research. 

And Washington is also leading a number of countries in demanding that the WHO end its exclusion of Taiwan - considered by Beijing to be part of its territory - and allow it to access next week's assembly as an observer.

"While this has been an ongoing concern for several years, this has taken on a heightened attention this year in response to the global pandemic," Mr Bremberg said.

"Allowing for some sort of meaningful participation would seem to be the minimum that the WHO could do."

The UN health agency has, however, insisted that such a move would require a resolution by member states, who in 1972 decided Beijing was China's sole legitimate representative.

It has also suggested it can only issue an invite with Beijing's blessing.

Taiwan was invited to attend the WHA for a number of years as an observer, but that stopped in 2016, with the entrance of a new Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, who refuses to recognise the concept that Taiwan is part of "one China".

Nearly 15 countries, including Belize, Guatemala, the Marshall Islands and Honduras, have written to Tedros asking that the question of Taiwan's participation be added to the agenda.

The United States is not among the countries who are asking the WHA to make a call on the issue of Taiwan's participation.

Several diplomatic sources cautioned that putting this issue to a vote even under normal conditions would be a drawn-out process, and that doing so during a short, virtual meeting would be an insurmountable logistical challenge.

It would "torpedo" the entire assembly, one diplomatic source warned.


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