UPDATE 2-Suburban NYC county residents sue WHO over coronavirus pandemic response

(Adds WHO comments about the pandemic, updated data on coronavirus spread in New York state)

NEW YORK, April 20 (Reuters) - Residents of a suburban New York City county that was one of the earliest U.S. hot spots for the coronavirus sued the World Health Organization on Monday, accusing it of gross negligence in covering up and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a proposed class action, three residents of Westchester County accused the WHO of failing to quickly declare a pandemic, monitor China’s response to the original outbreak, provide treatment guidelines, advise members on how to respond including through travel restrictions, and coordinate a global response.

They also accused the WHO of conspiring with China’s government, which was not named as a defendant, to cover up COVID-19’s severity.

The WHO did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Its director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has defended the agency’s handling of the pandemic, saying the WHO had kept the world informed about the coronavirus. He has also called for global unity to fight the pandemic.

The lawsuit by Richard Kling and Steve Rotker, both of New Rochelle, and Gennaro Purchia, of Scarsdale, was filed in the federal court in White Plains, New York.

It seeks unspecified damages for what they called WHO’s “incalculable” harm to the roughly 756,000 adult residents in Westchester County who would make up the class.

Westchester is north of New York City, and last year had about 967,506 people, of whom roughly 78% were adults, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Chimène Keitner, an international law professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, said the lawsuit will likely be dismissed because U.S. law affords the WHO “functional immunity” from such cases.

She also said the complaint did not detail the alleged harm suffered by the individual plaintiffs, or show what legal duty the WHO owed to them.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

China itself also faces multiple private lawsuits in the United States seeking damages related to the pandemic.

New Rochelle became a coronavirus hot spot after a lawyer who attended the Young Israel of New Rochelle synagogue was diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 2, the first person in the community to test positive.

Through April 19, a total of 247,512 people in New York state had tested positive for the coronavirus, including 24,306 in Westchester, according to the state’s health department.

The number of total hospitalizations for COVID-19 and the daily death toll have fallen in recent days, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday.

The case is Kling et al v World Health Organization, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 20-03124.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York and Jan Wolfe in Washington Editing by Grant McCool and Matthew Lewis