TOKYO (AP) -- Japan's government said Friday it will watch the World Health Organization's investigation into staff complaints over racism and abuse by a top Japanese official at the agency but denied it inappropriately received sensitive vaccine information from him.
WHO staffers have alleged that Dr. Takeshi Kasai, the U.N. health agency's top director in the Western Pacific, engaged in unethical, racist and abusive behavior, undermining their efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic, according to an internal complaint filed last October.
The complaints were also emailed to senior WHO leaders last week and describe a "toxic atmosphere" with "a culture of systemic bullying" at WHO's regional headquarters in the Philippines. Recordings obtained by The Associated Press also showed that Kasai, who heads a vast region that includes China and Japan, made derogatory remarks to his staff during meetings based on nationality.
Kasai denied the allegations.
Koichiro Matsumoto, deputy Cabinet secretary for public affairs at Japan's Prime Minister's Office, told the AP on Friday the government understands the WHO is taking appropriate steps and that Japan plans to carefully watch the WHO investigation.
Matsumoto denied that the Japanese government inappropriately received sensitive vaccine information from Kasai that he allegedly obtained by abusing his position.
"There is no truth (to the allegation) that the Japanese government inappropriately accepted sensitive information related to our vaccine contributions," he said.
He said Japan takes seriously the importance of maintaining equal and fair access to safe, effective and high-quality vaccines for all countries and regions, and that the Japanese government has been providing support through cooperation with COVAX, a U.N.-backed cooperative program formed to make sure low- and middle-income countries have fair access to COVID-19 vaccines.
Since June 2021, Japan has provided 42 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine -- 17.6 million doses through COVAX and 24.6 doses via bilateral deals.
Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt said Friday he had been unaware of the allegations against Kasai before reading media reports and would seek a briefing from the WHO.
He suggested the WHO's internal processes for examining such significant allegations would benefit from some kind of external oversight.
"We will be asking the WHO for independent advice as to the nature and response to these claims," Hunt said.
In Geneva, Britain's ambassador to the U.N. Simon Manley said there was no place for discrimination at WHO and that the U.K. expected WHO to "investigate robustly all allegations of misconduct" and to support those affected.
"We will therefore monitor closely WHO's response to these reports and continue to hold it to the highest ethical standards," Manley said.
The racism and abuse claims add to a litany of internal protests from WHO personnel about the agency's management of the pandemic during the last two years, including privately complaining about China's delayed sharing of information while publicly praising the government.
The WHO has dealt with internal complaints from staffers alleging systemic racism, sexism and other problems before. Its Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus ordered an internal probe in January 2019 to assess such allegations. Last year, the AP reported that senior WHO management was informed of multiple sexual abuse reports involving its own staffers during the Ebola outbreak in Congo, but failed to act.
WHO staffers said they took their complaints directly to Australia's government to ask for help because the Australian government is regarded as one of the most influential WHO member countries in the region.
Last October, the director of Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade advised one of the WHO staffers in an email to submit their complaints to WHO's integrity hotline.
The official said Australia would "raise the complaints directly through our regular channels with senior leaders in WHO ... and seek assurances they will address and take quick and responsive action," according to the email obtained by the AP.
WHO staffers said they have not been informed of any investigation into their numerous allegations since.
Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the issues at WHO "highlight internal governance and management problems in the institution."
Huang said WHO's Geneva headquarters does not have close enough oversight over its regional offices, leaving major accountability problems.
"Political and bureaucratic problems have undermined the WHO's ability to effectively address major global health challenges, such as COVID-19," Huang said in an email.