WHO’s on first? The World Health Organization and other players fighting the COVID-19 pandemic

March 19, 2020

By Jared Manse

As the holder of a Ph.D. in molecular microbiology as well as a law degree, my perspective on this once-in-a-century pandemic is unusual. Science, law and policy are converging in a way not seen in many years.  

Where does the name come from?

The most common terms seen in the media for the current pandemic are “the coronavirus” and “COVID-19.” However, referring to “the coronavirus” is a misnomer.

This novel coronavirus is just one strain among many in the Coronaviridae family of viruses. The adjective “novel” is used because it is a “new” viral strain insofar as it is either a new or previously unidentified strain. The other most common term for the pandemic is COVID-19 (a term that must be preferred by the makers of Corona beer!). COVID-19 simply means Coronavirus Disease 2019 (yes, it emerged in 2019).

Yet the more accurate name of this virus (viral strain) is: SARS-CoV-2. That name may sound confusing since many people remember the 2003 SARS outbreak. But severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was the name of that disease (caused by the strain SARS-CoV), while the current disease (COVID-19) is caused by a strain so highly genetically related that it was placed in the same viral species and dubbed SARS-CoV-2 for that very reason.

Scientists (microbiologists, immunologists and epidemiologists, among others) have been metaphorically screaming warnings about this exact type of pandemic for years. But scientists merely advise us, they do not make or implement law or policy.  

World Health OrganizationThe World Health Organization

So, who is in charge of a worldwide pandemic? The short answer is … nobody … or many people. At the international level, the “who” is WHO: the World Health Organization. The WHO, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, was formed in 1948 under the auspices of the United Nations. The WHO has 194 member states, including all of the member states of the United Nations except for Liechtenstein. The WHO’s constitution clarifies its purpose is to monitor and ensure global health, including working with partner states for worldwide disease surveillance. Nonetheless, the WHO cannot force countries to act on its suggestions. Yet when the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, it certainly caught the world’s attention.

Governmental responsibility in the United States

Since within the United States, WHO is not in charge, then who actually is? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), headed by Dr. Robert Redfield since 2018, is the premier national public health institute in the United States, and is likely the most readily identifiable player in epidemic/pandemic situations. It is an agency within the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In emergency situations, such as pandemics, the Public Health Service (PHS) Act provides various legal authorities to the HHS secretary. For example, under Section 361 of the PHS Act, the HHS secretary is authorized to isolate and quarantine to prevent the entry and spread of communicable diseases both from foreign countries into the United States, and between states. The authority for carrying out these functions on a daily basis is delegated to the CDC.

Another relevant HHS agency that is in a separate chain of command is the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) , which is under the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIAID has been led since 1984 by Dr. Anthony Fauci, who many may recognize from his daily television appearances. Dr. Fauci’s capacity to engender respect and allay fears (all while proffering important information) has proven indispensable in this and prior public health crises.

Yet, this list of responsible parties is only the tip of the iceberg. State governors and state health agencies generally have emergency powers, usually including powers specifically directed to health crises. Local governments and city mayors likewise have health departments and emergency powers. School boards, public universities and other governmental bodies are generally empowered to address emergency situations. Also on the front line are private-sector businesses and educational institutions.

The leaders of all these organizations now find themselves making dramatic decisions while assessing scientific information often outside of their usual experience or training, and which goes well beyond common sense of even the smartest and most well-educated individuals.

Good luck, Godspeed, and everyone please wash and dry your hands!

Jared Manse is a patent attorney in Greensfelder’s Intellectual Property Practice Group. He acquired his law degree from Duke University School of Law. He was awarded a Ph.D. in Molecular Microbiology of Medicine from the University of Missouri School of Medicine. 

Link to COVID-19 Resources page

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