World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is up for reelection. After repeatedly endorsing the Chinese Communist Party’s slow and secretive response to the COVID-19 pandemic and helping it conceal the origins of the outbreak, he is asking the United States and other WHO member nations to support his bid. U.S. President Joe Biden must now decide whether to support a candidate who habitually defers to Beijing or back another candidate who can steer the WHO in the direction of much-needed reform.
But there’s a big hitch: Although the election of the next director-general won’t take place until the May 2022 World Health Assembly, nominations are due later this month. All indications are that Tedros, formerly Ethiopia’s foreign affairs and health minister, will stand unopposed for a second five-year term. It’s a glaring failure of the Biden administration not to have prepared an alternative. But if Washington focuses its energies, it may yet prevent Tedros’ reelection—and with it, a victory for the broken status quo that harms both U.S. interests and global public health.
Since the earliest days of the pandemic, Tedros has been pandering to Beijing and helping it cover up its failures. In January 2020, he said that China’s “cooperation and transparency is very, very commendable, and we really appreciate [it].” That praise came three weeks after the Wuhan Public Security Bureau detained eight whistleblowers for trying to sound the alarm to the world about the unknown disease spreading in the city. One of the whistleblowers, a Wuhan doctor named Li Wenliang, died soon after his release from police detention after contracting the virus from his patients.
Tedros also failed to push for transparency at his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in late January 2020. The day after he talked to Xi, Tedros said, “I was very encouraged and impressed by [his] detailed knowledge of the outbreak and his personal involvement in the response. This was for me a very rare leadership. … The fact that to date we have only seen 68 cases outside China and no deaths is due in no small part to the extraordinary steps the government has taken to prevent the export of cases. For that China deserves our gratitude and respect and they’re doing that at the expense of their economy and other factors.
“I will praise China again and again,” Tedros added, “because its actions actually help in reducing the spread of coronavirus to other countries.”
The WHO needs a leader from a democratic nation who does not accommodate authoritarians.
Tedros’ public praise was presumably a carrot to convince Beijing to provide additional information it was hiding. But an Associated Press investigation revealed that WHO staff knew in early January that China was not sharing critical data. For example, Beijing did not share detailed data on patients and cases for several weeks, unnecessarily delaying analysis of the outbreak. What’s more, Chinese scientists at multiple institutions decoded the virus’s genome in early January, but China’s leadership prevented publication. Finally, a Chinese researcher published the sequence without authorization. The next day his lab was temporarily shut by the authorities, but at least the rest of the world had what it needed to develop desperately needed tests and start working on vaccines.
Tedros also urged the rest of the world not to restrict travelers from China—even after Beijing had already placed a lockdown on domestic travel.
Tedros also allowed Beijing to have veto power over the contents of the March 2021 joint WHO-Chinese report on COVID-19’s origins. The lead WHO investigator revealed in a Danish documentary released last month that China only allowed the report to mention the possibility that the virus originated in a Wuhan lab if the report also downplayed the theory as “extremely unlikely” and concluded it warranted no further pursuit.
Tedros deserves some credit for contradicting the report at a press conference, saying the lab accident theory warrants investigation. It was a response to Western pressure as much as a show of integrity. After Biden publicly stated that a lab accident was a “likely” scenario, Tedros confessed there had been a “premature push” to dismiss the theory. But the damage was already done: The flawed report perpetuates China’s disinformation campaign and has done more harm than good.
Beijing has firmly rejected Tedros’ requests to participate in a second phase of the origins investigation. China has also amplified its state-led propaganda that the virus originated in the United States.
Tedros’ leadership failures extend to the WHO’s efforts to cover up sexual assault allegations during its mission to combat Ebola outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In separate cases, two WHO contractors offered lucrative jobs on the Ebola response team to women in exchange for sex. In one case, the contractor impregnated a woman, and the WHO was aware of a payment scheme to cover up the pregnancy. The WHO allowed the two perpetrators to complete their contracts with the organization. And it even promoted the senior official in charge of the outbreak response, who was aware of the allegations.
The Biden administration must find an alternate candidate for director-general and then spearhead an all-out diplomatic blitz to secure support for that candidate from a majority of WHO member states. Director-general nominations may be due as early as next week. If it isn’t doing so already, the Biden team should quickly consult with likeminded countries—including Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, and South Korea—to put forward an alternate candidate. In 2016, Britain, France, and Italy submitted nominations.
The first qualification for a candidate should be standing up to China and pledging to clean house within the WHO to fix its leadership problems. The WHO also needs a leader from a democratic nation who does not accommodate authoritarians.
And submitting a nomination is only the first step. Biden should lead the diplomatic effort, including directly engaging other heads of government, to ensure the nominee is elected in May 2022.
The Biden administration pledged it would fix the WHO when it reversed the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the organization. The director-general race is the time to put this promise into action. The United States—and the world—would be better off with new leadership at the WHO as it recovers from this pandemic and works to prevent the next one. We’ll never know for sure, but it’s safe to say that many people might still be alive had Tedros acted more forcefully against the virus instead of working so hard to please Beijing.
Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense on the U.S. National Security Council during the Trump administration. Twitter: @NatSecAnthony. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.