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US Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Accusing WHO of Gross Negligence Over Pandemic Response

Residents of a suburban New York City county sued the World Health Organization (WHO) in April of last year, accusing the health body of negligence over how it provided information to the public and responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.

US District Judge Cathy Seibel dismissed a class-action lawsuit on Monday filed by seven New York-based plaintiffs who accused the WHO of gross negligence, declaring that the global health organization was immune under its own 1948 constitution and the International Organization Immunities Act.

The plaintiffs, including a New Rochelle doctor and six Mount Vernon residents from the state’s Westchester County, sought damages from the organization over its failure to quickly declare a pandemic, monitor China’s response to the original outbreak, provide treatment guidelines and coordinate global response. 

The New York residents, who all contracted COVID-19, argued that the pandemic “likely could have been prevented” if the WHO had not been “complicit in the spread and normalization” of Chinese government “propaganda.”

According to Reuters, the judge rejected arguments that the alleged negligence voided the WHO from its immunity provided under its constitution and the aforementioned act, adding that the complaint “makes only the general and vague assertion that the WHO negligently failed to provide effective leadership and implementation of its core global functions under (International Health Regulations).” 

Under the International Organization Immunities Act, public international organizations, such as the WHO, are entitled to enjoy privileges, exemptions and immunities as an international organization. In article 67 of the WHO’s constitution it states that the organization shall “enjoy in the territory of each member such privileges and immunities as may be necessary for the fulfillment of its objective and for the exercise of its functions.” 

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the WHO has faced severe criticism over its early decisions, prompting even former US President Donald Trump to withdraw the United States as a member of the organization in May 2020. At the time, Trump remarked during a White House briefing that “China has total control over the World Health Organization.”

However, the move has since been halted by US President Joe Biden. 

Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University and technical assistant to the WHO during early cases of the pandemic, claimed that “myself and other public health experts” were deceived “based on what the World Health Organization and China were saying.”

In early February 2020, the WHO’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised the “transparency” of the Chinese response to early cases of the virus despite mounting evidence that Chinese officials had silenced whistleblowers and undercounted cases.

The WHO has often emphasized that “ensuring open lines of communications” is critical in efforts to control the outbreak of a disease. However, as stated by Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, there is a large concern over whether or not the WHO can “assume leadership effectively,” and if the organization can be trusted to be a politically-neutral “guardian of global health.”

China was not listed as a defendant in the New York case, and there have not yet been any comments from lawyers from either end. Westchester County became a hot spot during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, having had more than 121,500 cases and 2,200 deaths, according to data cited from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

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