GENEVA (AP) — Nations around the world reacted with alarm Wednesday after President Donald Trump announced a halt to the sizable funding the United States sends to the World Health Organization. Health experts warned the move could jeopardize global efforts to stop the coronavirus pandemic.
At a briefing in Washington, Trump said he was instructing his administration to halt funding for the WHO pending a review of its role “in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus.” The United States is WHO’s largest single donor, contributing between $400 million and $500 million annually to the Geneva-based agency in recent years.
Trump has repeatedly labelled COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” and criticized the U.N. health agency for being too lenient on China, where the novel virus first emerged late last year.
Outside experts have questioned China’s reported infections and deaths from the virus, calling them way too low and unreliable. And an investigation by The Associated Press has found that s ix days of delays between when Chinese officials k new about the virus and when they warned the public allowed the pandemic to bloom into an enormous public health disaster.
The WHO has been particularly effusive in its praise for China, calling on other countries to emulate their approach and repeatedly praising their transparency.
But China only agreed to a proposed WHO-led mission to investigate the coronavirus after WHO’s chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus personally paid a visit to Chinese President Xi Jinping, a highly unusual move to secure a country visit during an outbreak.
The European Union on Wednesday said Trump has “no reason” to freeze WHO funding at this critical stage and called for measures to promote unity instead of division.
Trudie Lang, a professor of global health research at Oxford University said attempts to hinder WHO’s work could have significant consequences for the pandemic response.
“The reason we’re making such fast progress on diagnostics, vaccines and drugs is because of WHO’s role as a neutral broker,” she said. “It’s their role to bring together the best science.”
On Twitter, Bill Gates — whose foundation was the second-largest donor to the WHO for its latest two-year budget, contributing over $530 million in 2018 and 2019 — wrote that stopping funding for WHO during a world health crisis “is as dangerous as it sounds.”
“Their work is slowing the spread of COVID-19 and if that work is stopped no other organization can replace them. The world needs WHO now more than ever,” Gates wrote.
Worldwide, the pandemic has infected nearly 2 million people and killed over 127,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, pushed back at Trump’s announcement.
“Placing blame doesn’t help,” he wrote on Twitter. “The virus knows no borders. We must work closely against COVID-19.”
The Netherlands has also thrown its support behind the WHO. “Now is not the time to hold back funding. Once the pandemic is under control, lessons can be learned. For now, focus on overcoming this crisis,” Sigrid Kaag, minister for foreign trade and development cooperation, said on Twitter.
Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, called Trump’s decision “extremely problematic,” noting that WHO is leading efforts to help developing countries fight the spread of COVID-19.
“This is the agency that’s looking out for other countries and leading efforts to stop the pandemic,” Sridhar said. “This is exactly the time when they need more funding, not less.”
Sridhar said Trump’s move was a short-sighted political decision that would likely have lasting consequences.
“Trump is angry, but his anger is being directed in a way that is going to ultimately hurt U.S. interests,” she said.
Sridhar and others said it was still unclear what the precise impact of Trump’s funding cuts might be, but that other health priorities funded by the U.S., like polio eradication, malaria and HIV, were likely to suffer.
Aid workers in developing countries worried they might be hardest hit by Trump’s decision.
“President Trump’s decision to cut US funding of WHO, while allegedly only temporarily, will have significant and far-reaching impacts that won’t be felt by Americans or Europeans, but instead by the world’s most vulnerable populations,” said Donald Brooks in Burkina Faso, chief executive officer for Initiative: Eau, an American aid group focused on increasing drinking water safety and quality in developing areas and conflict zones.
In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian says the country is “seriously concerned” about the U.S. government’s decision to suspend funding.
The WHO did not respond to repeated requests from The Associated Press for comment.
Some experts say WHO dallied in declaring a pandemic; it did so only on March 11, long after the surging outbreaks on multiple continents met the agency’s own definition for a global crisis.
“They were really behind the curve,” said Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The U.N. health agency also insisted for months that the virus could be contained and was not as infectious as influenza. But many outbreak experts, including at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, say COVID-19 is spreading many times faster than flu and that its rate of spread was apparent in January.
Still, some global health academics said Trump’s attacks on WHO might actually strengthen the agency’s credibility.
“If Trump was making a great success of the pandemic response in the U.S., if there were minimal cases and deaths there, that might be different,” said Sophie Harman, a professor of international politics at Queen Mary University of London. “But things are getting worse and that reinforces the need for WHO.”
7:00 A.M. – WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump said he was cutting off U.S. payments to the World Health Organization during the coronavirus pandemic, accusing the organization of failing to do enough to stop the virus from spreading when it first surfaced in China.
Trump, who had telegraphed his intentions last week, claimed the outbreak could have been contained at its source and that lives could have been saved had the U.N. health agency done a better job investigating the early reports coming out of China.
“The WHO failed in its basic duty and must be held accountable,” Trump said at a Tuesday briefing. He said the U.S. would be reviewing the WHO’s actions to stop the virus before making any decision on resuming aid.
There was no immediate comment from the Geneva-based organization on Trump’s announcement. But when asked about possible U.S. funding cuts during a regular U.N. briefing earlier Tuesday, WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris responded, “Regardless of any issues, our work will go on.”
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres responded to Trump’s announcement by saying now is not the time to end support for the World Health Organization, calling the WHO “absolutely critical” to the global effort to combat COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Guterres said that it is possible that different entities read the facts differently but that the appropriate time for a review is “once we have finally turned the page on this pandemic.”
“But now is not that time,” he said, adding that it also is not the time to reduce resources for operations at the WHO or any other humanitarian group that is working to combat the virus.
The United States contributed nearly $900 million to the WHO’s budget for 2018-19, according to information on the agency’s website. That represents one-fifth of its total $4.4 billion budget for those years. The U.S. gave nearly three-fourths of the funds in “specified voluntary contributions” and the rest in “assessed” funding as part of Washington’s commitment to U.N. institutions.
A more detailed WHO budget document provided by the U.S. mission in Geneva showed that in 2019, the United States provided $452 million, including nearly $119 million in assessed funding. In its most recent budget proposal from February, the Trump administration called for slashing the U.S. assessed funding contribution to the WHO to $57.9 million.
More than 125,000 deaths worldwide, including more than 25,000 in the U.S., have been blamed on the coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Last week, Trump blasted the WHO for being “China-centric” and alleging that it had “criticized” his ban on travel from China as the COVID-19 outbreak was spreading from the city of Wuhan.
The WHO generally takes care not to criticize countries on their national policies, and it was not immediately clear what specific criticism Trump was alluding to.
Trump himself showed deference to China at the beginning stages of the outbreak.
“China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus,” he tweeted Jan. 24. “The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”
Asked Tuesday about the appropriateness of seeking to cut the WHO’s funding in the middle of a worldwide viral outbreak, Trump said the review would last 60 to 90 days.
“This is an evaluation period, but in the meantime, we’re putting a hold on all funds going to World Health,” Trump said. He said the U.S. will continue to engage with the WHO in pursuit of “meaningful reforms.”
Trump has also complained that other countries give substantially less than the U.S., singling out China.
The American Medical Association immediately called on Trump to reconsider his decision.
“During the worst public health crisis in a century, halting funding to the World Health Organization is a dangerous step in the wrong direction that will not make defeating COVID-19 easier,” AMA President Patrice A. Harris said in a statement.
Harris said international cooperation is needed to fight the virus, along with science and data.
“Cutting funding to the WHO, rather than focusing on solutions, is a dangerous move at a precarious moment for the world,” she said.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. But it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death for some people, especially older adults and people with existing health problems. The vast majority of people recover.