By Francesco Guarascio and Caroline Copley
BRUSSELS/BERLIN (Reuters) - The World Health Organization (WHO) should be quickly overhauled, get more powers to handle pandemics and expose its member states' shortfalls in health emergencies, European Union officials said on Friday.
The comments were made at a video conference of EU health ministers that endorsed an EU document on the reform of the U.N. agency which for the first time outlines a series of sweeping changes needed to boost WHO's powers and resources, as exclusively reported by Reuters in September.
The moves followed criticisms that China and other countries did not share information on the COVID-19 pandemic in a timely fashion at its onset.
"The current pandemic challenges us very acutely ... but it is very important that the (WHO) reform debate is held in parallel," German Health Minister Jens Spahn told a news conference.
He did not say when the reform process should begin, but stressed that as a result of the overhaul the WHO should become faster in its reaction to health crises, while its member states should share more information in emergencies.
"We greatly appreciate the EU's strong leadership in global health and its steadfast support for WHO, including support for strengthening the organization," the WHO said, declining to comment specifically on the EU document.
"It is extremely important we move ahead with this reform," EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides told the same news conference.
After months of international pressure, an independent panel was set up in September to review the global handling of the pandemic. The process to reform the WHO would begin after that, officials had said.
The EU draft document, which will represent the EU's position at a WHO assembly in mid-November, urges the U.N. agency to make public more quickly how and whether its member states respect their obligations on sharing information on health crises.
The United States has accused the WHO of being too close to China in the first phase of the pandemic, when critics say Beijing was slow in sharing crucial information on the new coronavirus which first appeared in the city of Wuhan.
The WHO has repeatedly dismissed these accusations.
"Transparency on who complies with the rules is fundamental," Kyriakides told ministers at the video conference, according to her speaking notes.
The draft document also says WHO countries should allow independent epidemiological assessments on-site in high risk zones during health crises.
(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio; Editing by David Holmes and David Evans and Kirsten Donovan)