The five candidates shortlisted for the world's top health job were scheduled to undergo grilling yesterday before the WHO's Executive Board with two Asian candidates at the top of the list.
At the end of voting on Monday, WHO bird flu expert Margaret Chan (陳馮富珍) of China held a slight lead in the race to become the WHO's director-general with 32 votes, followed by Shigero Omi, a Japanese who heads WHO's operations in the Western Pacific and China with 31.
Also among the five candidates were Mexico's Health Minister Julio Frenk with 30 votes and Kazem Behbehani, a senior WHO official from Kuwait and Spanish Health Minister Elena Salgado Mendez with 28 each.
Omi was the only candidate to issue a statement, saying he was "delighted" to be on the shortlist, and that it was "an excellent first step, but there is still a lot of work to be done."
The contest for the UN's top health job entered its final round on Monday with the start of a three-day meeting to nominate a new chief, which narrowed the roster of 11 nominees down to five.
Each board member voted for five candidates in each round of secret ballots.
Anders Nordstrom, who has been acting director-general since the late Lee Jong-wook died in May, said there is no formal regional rotation for the leadership position.
Today the board will nominate one final candidate for approval by tomorrow at a special session of the agency's governing World Health Assembly, made up of all 193 member countries.
The US, a member of the WHO executive board, has not expressed a preference for any of the candidates.
Observers say Chan, a Hong Kong native, who was the WHO's top official for pandemic influenza as well as the assistant director-general for communicable diseases, has China and other Asian countries backing her, but her chances could be limited because Ban Ki-moon of South Korea will be the new UN secretary-general. A long-standing UN tradition holds that the top posts at different agencies are geographically divided.
China's UN influence
Omi, a WHO insider with 16 years' experience at the organization's Asia office, faces the same handicap but could get votes from countries keen to keep China's influence in the UN in check.
Mexico's Frenk is the only candidate from the Americas after Ecuadorean president Alfredo Palacio Gonzalez dropped out of the running last week. The minister is credited with revamping the country's health system by introducing an insurance system for the poor.
Lee took over as director-general of WHO in 2003 as the agency was winding up its battle against the worldwide SARS outbreak. The South Korean died of a brain hemorrhage at 61.