World Health Organisation chief admits key error it made at start of Covid outbreak

The World Health Organisation‘s outgoing chief scientist has expressed regret over the organisation’s early handling of the Covid pandemic.

Soumya Swaminathan, 63, admitted that the WHO should have acknowledged earlier on that SARS-CoV-2 could be transmitted through aerosols as she reflected on her time in the post.

“We should have done it much earlier, based on the available evidence, and it is something that has cost the organisation”, Swaminathan told Science Insider. “You can argue that [the criticism of WHO] is unfair, because when it comes to migration [of the viris], we did talk about all the methods, including ventilation and masking.

“But at the same time, we were not forcefully saying: ‘This is an airborne virus.’ I regret that we didn’t do this much, much earlier.”

In July 2020, the WHO updated its guidance on airborne transmission, remarking that “airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 can occur during medical procedures that generate aerosols”.

“WHO, together with the scientific community, has been actively discussing and evaluating whether Covid may also spread through aerosols in the absence of aerosol-generating procedures, particularly in indoor settings with poor ventilation.”

In March 2021, the WHO published an updated report on the relationship between Covid transmission and aerosol-generating procedures, which it described as “any medical procedures that can induce the production of aerosols of various sizes”.

It lists the use of ventilation tubes in patients, non-invasive ventilation, tracheostomy, resuscitation, manual ventilation before intubation and dental procedures as examples.

Swaminathan first joined the WHO in 2017 and was later appointed the organisation’s inaugural chief scientist by Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Last week, she announced that she would be leaving her post at the end of the month to work on public health in India.

Swaminathan’s successor has not yet been named, but her departure comes at a time of great change for the organisation. Across its 16-strong leadership team, eight will leave the global body at the end of November including Dr Mariângela Simão, assistant director-general. This marks the most significant leadership change since 2019.