The Malta Independent 24 September 2021, Friday

Having faith in institutions

Pierre Mallia Sunday, 25 July 2021, 09:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

The World Health Organisation (WHO), the EU, UNESCO, the United Nations, etc., are all international bodies which people tend to put their trust or scepticism in. When it comes to organisations like the WHO we have no option but to want to trust. But trust means taking a risk. If I say I trust you, I mean that I am willing to take a risk in you; I have faith and hope in you. The WHO certainly enjoys the trust of many countries but we need also to understand why many people find it difficult to digest certain actions which were taken, which, had they not been taken, could have prevented the fast spread of the Covid19 pandemic, if not put a stop to it.


There are questions which we need to answer and which politicians and scientists need to heed. From my angle (and I am sure there are others), they are these:

1.      Could the WHO have done anything better than it did?

2.      Was it a coincidence that the virus originated in a place (Wuhan) where there is the laboratory studying the same virus?

3.      Does the WHO have any conflict of interests?

To answer the first question, we have the scathing report of a team of experts brought together by the WHO itself which said that the WHO failed to respond well to the pandemic and in fact says that the Covid19 pandemic was preventable. The report can be found on the BBC website. It points to the fact that 3.3 million deaths (at the time) - now it is up to 4 million - could have been prevented had the Organisation responded at least a week earlier than it did by not having declared in time that the outbreak in China was an international emergency. As I have been saying in this column all along, the WHO was hindered by its own regulations where it says that travel restrictions should be a last resort. The report was made by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response. The Co-Chair, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said that it was due to a "myriad of failures, gaps and delays in preparedness and response".

It is not as if the WHO could not have known this. We have had the experience of SARS 1 and MERS and even Dr Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease in the United States, warned during the time of Obama that the next President (Trump) would have a pandemic on its hands. The WHO knew very well that laboratories have been studying viruses of this kind. What they effectively do is merge a new spike protein on the SARS virus - the rationale being to study new variants of viruses in order to be in time to develop vaccines. Well, the reverse actually happened and either virus won the race. Let's face it; we will never know for sure whether the virus escaped the lab (through a human catching it) or whether it was a mere coincidence. This begs the questions whether such research should be done in the first place. The WHO may not have jurisdiction on this but surely it should follow it closely in order to be prepared and issue warnings.

This leads us to the second question - was it a coincidence that the virus originated in the very place where there was a laboratory study the very same virus? Do we know the odds of that happening? There are so many places where the virus could have originated - they do not only eat bats in Wuhan. Yet there were even attempts to make us believe that this virus could have originated in France or the UK. Let's call a spade a spade. In medicine we are thought to look out for zebras, the possibility of a rare disease, but that if someone hears hoofs outside, it is more likely to be a horse than a zebra. The zebras are rare on European roads, although one may escape from a zoo. It is no wonder that we call rare diseases "zebras". The WHO is full of doctors who may easily leave it to the powers above who are in reality politicians.

No one can convince me that nobody, within the WHO, did not reasonably suspect that the virus originated from the lab. Even if it did not, the suspicion should have been raised. The fact then that the Chinese government decided to build a hospital within the short span of one week is indeed a red flag. No one is blaming China here. These things may happen if we allow them to happen. But the watchdog should not have told us to keep borders open. When it was too late, countries within the EU started to close down their borders, not following the EU's advice which tried to heed the WHO. This shows that the ground level was not trusting the advice being given. People were dying. Trucks were carrying the dead like animals. People had to start losing faith in the WHO.

When it came time to defend the Astra-Zeneca vaccine, the WHO did so, but people and politicians did not heed it. When advice should have been taken, the people seemed to have lost faith. Whether this was a pharmaceutical battle we will never know. But when politicians are convinced, no amount of scientific reasoning will make them change their mind. And perhaps this is just as well, as politicians are closer to the voice of the people. Labs, which experiment on viruses (the so-called gain-of-function research to predict mutations), which do not in effect beat that virus, or, for that matter, are not publicized does not do any good to science. Science is then seen as the enemy. No amount of statistics will convince someone to take a vaccine with a very rare side-effect instead of one which does not have one. But the hard truth is that all the vaccines have produced side effects. These are published. Moreover, the AstraZeneca vaccine seems to be giving more than 80% protection against variants while the others are much less.

Finally, was there any conflict of interest within the WHO? This is a hard question to answer. I really wish there was not and I do not take kindly to conspiracy theories. These do not promulgate solidarity and collaboration. Instead they cause more harm. But one cannot help wonder whether the Chinese government pressured the WHO not to advise that they close down their borders. Pressure or not, the WHO was wrong when it did not see the above coincidence and red flags mentioned. It is its job to advise on closing borders and not of course to order. It is useless then to come and say on television that not taking the vaccine is immoral when you are making a mess of it. People felt they failed us. Many could not have helped to wonder whether the Director-General of the WHO felt pressured by China in some way, perhaps because just some time before, China had chosen his country, Ethiopia, to build a hospital in Africa. I trust that the integrity of the Director-General was in its proper place, but one cannot blame the general public when they raise eyebrows.

As Jordan Peterson says in his new book, we need to have faith in our institutions, be they religious, political or social. But if these become too rigid and do not listen to reasoned voices but instead stifle them, then there is a great danger of loss in the basic trust we need to have, which in turn opens the road for the more anarchists among us to do havoc. I still put my trust in the WHO, which now has to advise on the Gain-of-function research on viruses.


Pierre Mallia is Professor of Family Medicine and Patients' Rights and teaches University of Malta. He chairs the Bioethics Research Programme of the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery. He also chairs the Bioethics Consultative Committee.

This article is his personal opinion and does not represent the opinion of any committee or Board he serves on.


Email: [email protected]

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