Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization

WHO Acknowledges Possibility of Airborne Covid-19 Transmission

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President Donald J. Trump formally began the process of withdrawing the United States from the World Health Organization on Tuesday — part of a challenging week for the global public health body, during which it also faced criticism from scientists over its statements on the airborne transmission of Covid-19.

Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the WHO in May, blaming the organization and China for Covid-19’s spread, and suggesting, without evidence, that WHO policies had protected China from scrutiny. The proposal drew swift rebuke from experts and policymakers — including Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, who expressed concern that a U.S. withdrawal could “interfere with clinical trials that are essential to the development of vaccines” and “make it harder to work with other countries to stop viruses before they get to the United States.”

Since then, case counts have continued to climb in the United States — the estimated death toll now tops 133,200 people, some one-quarter of the world total — even as once-hard-hit countries in Europe return to a semblance of normal life. Still, the Trump administration formally notified the United Nations this week that the United States, which provides some 15 percent of the WHO’s funding, would withdraw from the organization in July 2021, the earliest possible date. The decision seems poised to become an issue in the U.S. presidential election later this year. “On my first day as president,” presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden wrote on Twitter this week, “I will rejoin the WHO and restore our leadership on the world stage.”

While the organization has been subject to years of attention from conspiracy theorists, it has also received more legitimate criticisms — including, recently, over missteps in communication regarding the Covid-19 pandemic. This week, 237 scientists and clinicians signed on to an open letter to the WHO and other health bodies calling for them “to recognize the potential for airborne spread of Covid-19.”

While the WHO and other organizations have warned for months that large droplets, generated by coughs or sneezes, can spread the virus, they have resisted stating that microscopic aerosols, which can stay aloft for hours, may transmit the disease as well. But there is mounting evidence, many researchers say, that such transmissions does occur — evidence, critics say, that the WHO has been very slow to acknowledge, even as it offers compelling support for widespread mask use and other interventions.

Still, the agency responded quickly this week to the concerns of scientists. The open letter was published Monday. By Tuesday, the WHO said its expert committees were reviewing the evidence. And by Thursday, the organization had adjusted to the new evidence, warning that airborne transmission may occur. That same day, the WHO announced that it would conduct an independent review of the international response to the coronavirus.

“This is a time for self-reflection,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said of the announcement, “to look at the world we live in and to find ways to strengthen our collaboration as we work together to save lives and bring this pandemic under control.”

Also in the News:

• With the start of the academic year looming, top U.S. federal officials this week made it clear that they want schools of all levels to at least partially resume in-person instruction, despite rising Covid-19 caseloads in many states. On Tuesday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos cited recent guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics which argues for the benefits of having students physically present for classes. DeVos said in an interview with Fox News she was “very seriously” looking at withholding federal funds from schools that do not reopen, a threat repeated by President Donald Trump on Twitter. Vice President Mike Pence said on Wednesday that instead of pulling existing funds (an action whose legality many experts have called into question), the administration may leverage the next coronavirus relief package to pressure states. But educators argue the administration’s enthusiasm for reopening has not been accompanied by proper guidance or support for teachers, parents, and students. The administration has “zero credibility in the minds of educators and parents when it comes to this major decision,” several parent and educator associations wrote in a joint statement. Also announced this week, a policy from Immigration and Customs Enforcement will revoke visas for international students if the college or university at which they’re enrolled holds only online classes. University leaders were quick to push back, with several schools, including Harvard and MIT, filing lawsuits against the agency. (Multiple sources)

• A report from civil rights auditors hired by Facebook, released Wednesday, excoriated the social media company for its insistence on prioritizing the free speech rights of politicians — notably President Donald Trump — over making sure that messages of hate and racism are controlled on the site. The auditors noted in particular that the company, led by founder Mark Zuckerberg, had allowed the president to promote misleading information aimed at suppressing votes, and they found that Facebook had provided, as The Washington Post described it, “a forum for White supremacy and White nationalism.” The report prompted Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg to pledge that the company would get “better and faster” at removing hate speech from the site. Still, critics pointed out that, just before the audit’s release, Facebook was running advertisements from a White nationalist group. (Facebook removed the ads shortly after inquiries from BuzzFeed News). The company’s positions have recently led to an advertising boycott by more than 1,000 companies, including Unilever and Coca-Cola, but organizers of the Stop Hate for Profit Campaign say they expect the effort to have little direct effect on the company’s finances. Facebook did ban some hate-mongering accounts shortly after the auditors’ report was released. And while civil rights groups remain dubious about real change, they also hope that the Facebook-commissioned report will have some continued impact. (Vox)

• As public health experts mull who should get access to the earliest doses of a coronavirus vaccine, a contentious proposal has emerged: Should Blacks and Hispanics, who have been disproportionately affected by the virus, be among the first in line? Expecting it will take months after a vaccine’s approval to produce a stockpile large enough to vaccinate the U.S. population, an advisory committee of public health experts has been working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop a plan to allocate the early doses. In addition to medical and national security officers, essential workers, and high-risk groups such as the elderly, the committee is considering prioritizing Blacks and Hispanics, who have contracted the virus at nearly three times the rate of Whites. But some experts question the scientific rationale behind such a proposal, and doubt that it would be politically viable. “Giving it to one race initially and not another race, I’m not sure how that would be perceived by the public,” Claire Hannan, of the Association of Immunization Managers, told The New York Times. The committee plans to hold multiple public meetings on prioritization this summer. (The New York Times)

• And finally: A number of right-leaning outlets, including Newsmax, the Washington Examiner, Human Events, and American Thinker, were found to have been publishing opinion pieces written by fictitious authors, part of what appears to be a propaganda campaign to shape opinions on Middle East politics. A Daily Beast investigation uncovered a network of at least 19 fake authors, such as “Raphael Badani” a “geopolitical risk consultant” whose writing has appeared in the Washington Examiner, the National Interest, and other outlets. The author’s posts share common themes: They tend to call for tougher sanctions on Iran, criticize Qatar, and praise the United Arab Emirates. The originators of the campaign, who have not been identified, constructed the authors’ profiles with such dubious methods as stealing people’s professional headshots off the internet and falsifying a LinkedIn job history. After The Daily Beast published its investigation, Newsmax and several other outlets deleted articles written by the fictitious writer. Other publications, like the British libertarian website Spiked, simply inserted a note from the editor addressing the non-existence of a writer. And two websites that published many of the fake writers’ pieces, Persia Now and Arab Eye, simply disappeared. (The Daily Beast)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Lucas Haugen, Deborah Blum, Frankie Schembri, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.

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Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.