London-based medical writer Maria Cheng revealed the largest internal investigation conducted by the World Health Organization in years — over allegations by WHO staffers in Syria that their boss mismanaged millions of dollars, plied government officials with gifts and acted frivolously as COVID-19 swept the country.

Cheng got a tip last November about misconduct in the Syria office from a WHO source who claimed to have hundreds of documents proving misappropriation of funds. That source sent plenty of financial documents, but they didn't tell the full story. Then the AP published a January piece about WHO’s Western Pacific director berating his staff using racist language. That prompted other sources got in touch with Cheng to say that she should dig into the WHO situation in Syria.

WHO combo

At left, a photo provided to the AP shows a chandelier and fresh flowers in the lobby of the Four Seasons Damascus hotel in February 2021. Dr. Akjemal Magtymova, World Health Organization Syria leader, organized a party here in May 2021, with a guest list of about 50, at a time when fewer than 1% of the Syrian population had received a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine. At right, an image from a video posted Dec. 15, 2020, by the Syria Facebook account of the World Health Organization, Dr. Akjemal Magtymova, second from left, participates in a dance routine with WHO personnel. In December 2020, deep in the first year of the pandemic, Magtymova instructed the Syria office to learn a flash mob dance for a year-end U.N. event. At the time, senior WHO officials in Geneva were advising countries to implement coronavirus measures including the suspension of any non-essential gatherings.

She spent months of talking to dozens of people, trying to persuade them to share proof. While vacationing near Geneva in July, Cheng spent a few extra days meeting WHO sources, including some from Syria. She hadn’t met these people before, but after one lakeside lunch a source shared hard copies of files, and recordings of meetings at which Dr. Akjemal Magtymova repeatedly called her staff “cowards” and “retarded,” as well as some raw footage used to make dance videos.

Finally, when AP broke the news in August that WHO had put the Western Pacific director on leave, sources in Syria who had previously been reluctant to talk recognized that AP’s reporting on that case had led to concrete action. They provided more documentation about Magtymova’s management practices in Syria, and Cheng had her exclusive.

The story won massive play in the Middle East and WHO dispatched an ethics team to Cairo, while major AP competitors reached out to congratulate Cheng on her scoop.