London - Experts called on Tuesday for urgent, root-and-branch changes to the World Health Organisation after an inadequate response to West Africa's vast and deadly Ebola outbreak.
The UN agency "does not currently possess the capacity or organizational culture to deliver a full emergency public health response", a panel of independent experts said in a report on the WHO's handling of the Ebola crisis.
The panel recommended that a $100m contingency fund, suggested by WHO for future emergencies, be fully financed by member states. It also called for the creation of a separate emergency preparedness and response unit within the WHO.
"This is a defining moment for the health of the global community," the report said. "[The] WHO must re-establish its pre-eminence as the guardian of global public health. This will require significant changes."
Geneva-based WHO has been widely criticised for its response to the Ebola epidemic - which killed more than 11 000 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone - and for its early assurances that the disease was under control despite repeated warnings to the contrary by the charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).
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WHO Director-General Margaret Chan admitted in May it had been "overwhelmed" by the Ebola epidemic and "ought to have reacted far earlier".
Responding to Tuesday's report, the WHO said it was already moving forward on some of the panel's recommendations, including the development of the emergency unit and the contingency fund.
The expert panel also said the 2005 International Health Regulations, agreed by 196 WHO member countries to try to track and control the spread of disease, must be strengthened and properly implemented to allow proper handling of epidemics.
"The world simply cannot afford another period of inaction until the next health crisis," it said.
The 2005 International Health Regulations were reviewed and changes recommended in 2011 after the 2009/2010 H1N1 flu pandemic, the panel said, but many countries have not acted on that review - a failure that made the Ebola response even worse.
"Had the (2011) recommendations for revision...been implemented, the global community would have been in a far better position to face the Ebola crisis," it said.
Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust global health charity who has previously called for a separate emergency response unit to be established within WHO, urged governments to support the panel's recommendations.
"It's essential that this new body is accountable and can show leadership in the face of emerging health threats, with the authority and independence to act quickly when needed," he said. "The support of the global community is also crucial if we are to avert another catastrophe on the scale of Ebola."