The World Health Organization bungled efforts to halt the spread of Ebola in West Africa, an internal report revealed Friday, as President Barack Obama named a trusted political adviser to take control of America’s frenzied response to the epidemic.
The stepped-up scrutiny of the international response came as U.S. officials rushed to cut off potential routes of infection from three cases in Texas, reaching a cruise ship in the Caribbean and multiple domestic airline flights. Republican lawmakers and the Obama administration debated the value of restricting travelers from entering the U.S. from countries where the outbreak began, without a resolution.
But with Secretary of State John Kerry renewing pleas for a “collective, global response” to a disease that has already killed more than 4,500 people in Africa, the WHO draft report pointed to serious errors by an agency designated as the international community’s leader in coordinating response to outbreaks of disease.
The document — a timeline of the outbreak — found that WHO, an arm of the United Nations, missed chances to prevent Ebola from spreading soon after it was first diagnosed in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea last spring, blaming factors including incompetent staff and a lack of information. Its own experts failed to grasp that traditional infectious disease containment methods wouldn’t work in a region with porous borders and broken health systems, the report found.
“Nearly everyone involved in the outbreak response failed to see some fairly plain writing on the wall,” WHO said in the report, obtained by The Associated Press. “A perfect storm was brewing, ready to burst open in full force.”
The agency’s own bureaucracy was part of the problem, the report found. It pointed out that the heads of its country offices in Africa are “politically motivated appointments” made by the WHO regional director for Africa, Dr. Luis Sambo, who does not answer to the agency’s chief in Geneva, Dr. Margaret Chan.
After WHO declared Ebola an international health emergency in August, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stepped in and had the United Nations take overall responsibility for fighting and eliminating the virus, among other things setting up an emergency response mission based in Ghana.
Dr. Peter Piot, the co-discoverer of the Ebola virus, agreed that WHO acted far too slowly.
“It’s the regional office in Africa that’s the front line,” said Piot, interviewed at his office in London. “And they didn’t do anything. That office is really not competent.”
WHO declined to comment on the document, which was not issued publicly, and said that Chan would be unavailable for an interview with the AP. She did tell Bloomberg News that she “was not fully informed of the evolution of the outbreak. We responded, but our response may not have matched the scale of the outbreak and the complexity of the outbreak.”
Meanwhile, Obama moved to step up the U.S. response to the disease, naming Ron Klain, a former chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden, as the administration’s point man on Ebola.
Klain is a longtime Democratic operative who also served as a top aide to Vice President Al Gore. He does not have any medical or public health expertise. But the White House said he would serve as “Ebola response coordinator,” suggesting his key role will be to synchronize the actions of many government agencies in combatting the disease.
“This is much broader than a medical response,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, citing Klain’s experience in the private as well as public sector and his relationships with Congress.
“All of that means he is the right person for the job, and the right person to make sure we are integrating the interagency response to this significant challenge,” he said.
Republican lawmakers continued pushing the administration Friday to consider restricting travel to the U.S. from the three Ebola-stricken West African countries. But despite Obama’s statement Thursday that he was not “philosophically opposed” to such a ban, Earnest affirmed the White House’s resistance to such a move.
Republican Mike Leavitt, a former health secretary under President George W. Bush, said Friday that he sees “lots of problems” with such a ban. While it may seem like a good idea, Bush administration officials who considered it to contain bird flu concluded that it would not work, while raising a host of difficult questions about who would be allowed to travel.
Other nations have taken steps to prevent travelers from the affected areas from crossing their borders. The Central American nation of Belize announced that it would immediately stop issuing visas to people from West African countries where Ebola had spread.
U.S. officials continued their efforts to contain the fallout from the nation’s first reported case of Ebola, Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian traveler who died last week at a Dallas hospital. To augment federal resources available in Dallas, the Obama administration said it was supporting or designating a White House liaison as well as a coordinator from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be stationed in the city.
Officials said they were working to remove a hospital worker — who had handled an Ebola lab specimen — from a Caribbean cruise ship, although she had gone 19 days without showing any sign of the infection. The Carnival Cruise Lines ship was headed back to its home port of Galveston, Texas, on Friday after failing to get clearance to dock in Cozumel, Mexico, and officials in Belize would not allow the woman to leave the ship.
The lab worker and her spouse were in isolation and she is “not deemed to be a risk to any guests or crew,” a cruise line spokeswoman said.
Doctors at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland said that a Dallas nurse, Nina Pham, brought there for Ebola treatment was very tired but resting comfortably Friday in fair condition.
“We fully intend to have this patient walk out of this hospital,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said.
Another nurse to contract Ebola, Amber Vinson, was being treated at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
Her uncle and family spokesman, Lawrence Vinson, said in a statement Thursday night that she was stable.
“She followed all of the protocols necessary when treating a patient in Dallas, and right now, she’s trusting in her doctors and nurses as she is now the patient,” he said.
His statement was released by Vinson’s alma mater, Kent State University, where three of her relatives work. The school said those employees, who have been asked to remain off campus for three weeks, work in administrative areas and have little contact with students.
Concerns persisted about people who might have been in contact with her during a recent trip between Texas and Ohio. Police said Vinson stayed at the home of her mother and stepfather in Tallmadge, northeast of Akron, and the home has been cordoned off with yellow tape. Eight individuals in northeast Ohio were under quarantine, health officials said.
Frontier Airlines said it would contact passengers on seven flights, including two that carried Vinson and others afterward that used the same plane.
Despite the stepped up attention to disease, though, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim warned Friday that officials in many countries were focused too much on their own borders.
“I still don’t think that the world has understood what the possible downside risk is not just to the west African economy but to the global economy. And we are still losing the battle,” he said.
Adam Geller reported from New York. Other AP writers who contributed to this story include Angela Charlton in Paris; Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Jessica Gresko, Lara Jakes and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington; David Dishneau in Frederick, Maryland; Ann Sanner in Columbus, Ohio; Michelle Chapman in New York; and Patrick Jones in Belize City.