Specialised agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO) stress the importance of impartiality and independence to secure state compliance and support for their institutional mandate. For functionalists, separating scientific expertise from politics is beneficial for states and institutions aiming to prioritise knowledge over politics. However, in extreme crises, states tend to prioritise national interests. Specialised agencies then face the dilemma of whether to reinforce the separation between science and politics during a crisis to maintain their authority. The COVID-19 pandemic challenged this functional arrangement in international relations, where scientific credibility can aid global governance. Our recent article examines why, during a crisis, WHO leadership insisted on upholding the boundary between science and politics, even when others saw politics affecting impartiality and independence. It does so by analysing the governance processes and technical expertise led by the WHO in investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Emphasising science alone overlooked the politics, particularly in the origins investigation in China. We argue that while the urge to enforce boundaries may intensify in crises, attempts to separate politics from science during such times undermine the effectiveness and reputation of specialised technical agencies. It is more practical to reveal how political conditions compromise scientific independence and impartiality.

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the challenging interplay between science and politics, particularly for specialised agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO, entrusted with the impartial provision of health advice and information, relies on a clear boundary between scientific expertise and political interests to ensure state compliance and support.

Historically, this boundary has been pivotal in promoting a knowledge-driven approach to global health governance, as exemplified by the International Health Regulations (IHR). The IHR mandates member states to report public health emergencies and collaborate with WHO for verification and technical assistance. This regulatory framework aims to uphold scientific integrity and foster international cooperation during health crises.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has tested this functional arrangement. The WHO’s investigation into the origins of COVID-19 in China highlighted the difficulties in maintaining the boundary between science and politics. While the WHO leadership aimed to preserve scientific impartiality, the investigation became entangled in geopolitical tensions, raising questions about the agency’s independence and credibility.

During the pandemic, the WHO had to navigate complex political landscapes while trying to uphold scientific principles. Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO COVID-19 Technical Lead, underscored this challenge when she emphasised focusing on the scientific work despite political pressures. This scenario reflects a broader tension in global health governance: the ideal of scientific cooperation often clashes with national interests and political incentives.

The WHO’s experience demonstrates that while scientific expertise is crucial, it cannot be entirely isolated from political contexts, especially during global emergencies. Effective global health governance requires a nuanced approach that recognises and navigates the intersection of science and politics, ensuring transparency and trust among states and the public. This balance is essential for the credibility and success of international health agencies in addressing future global health challenges.

The challenge for the WHO and similar specialised agencies is to strike a balance that ensures transparency and trust among states and the public. This balance is essential for the credibility and success of international health agencies in addressing future global health challenges. As the WHO navigates these complexities, it must adapt its strategies to maintain scientific integrity while acknowledging the political realities that shape global health governance. This nuanced approach is crucial for fostering effective international cooperation and safeguarding public health on a global scale.


Professor Sara E Davies is a member of  the Griffith Asia Institute and Sophie Harman is from Queen Mary University of London.

Please click here to access the full journal article titled “WHO and COVID-19: stress testing the boundary of science and politics”.