U.S. President Donald Trump dropped a virtual time bomb on the World Health Organization in the middle of its annual gathering, giving its chief 30 days to make changes or else lose funding from its biggest donor.
But even as other member countries unanimously backed a call on Tuesday to review the WHO’s handling of the pandemic, there was little appetite for an immediate inquiry.
Trump escalated his onslaught against the WHO early Tuesday, tweeting out a letter to WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus laying out a litany of alleged failings by the U.N. health body to hold China accountable as the virus emerged and spread from Hubei province.
If the WHO “does not commit to major substantive improvements within the next 30 days,” Trump said, he would make the temporary freeze on WHO funding permanent, depriving the agency of about 14 percent of its funding. Trump also threatened to “reconsider” U.S. membership of the WHO.
The WHO received the letter and is considering the contents, according to a statement. But Tedros declined to mention Trump or other criticism when he issued his speech closing the World Health Assembly on Tuesday afternoon, saying instead the WHO “remains fully committed to transparency, accountability and continuous improvement.”
“The greatest act of courage is to play as a team” — European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
Trump’s attacks on the WHO are largely viewed outside the U.S. and by internal opponents as scapegoating to distract from criticism of his own response ahead of November’s election.
However, a measure adopted at the WHO gathering on Tuesday showed there’s a global consensus to look back and ask what could have been improved.
Spearheaded by the European Union, the resolution calls for the WHO chief to initiate an independent review at the “earliest appropriate moment.”
Washington applauded the measure in a written statement, urging work to “begin now.”
But no one else seemed to express the same urgency.
“The greatest act of courage is to play as a team,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, speaking after the resolution passed. “This does not mean that once the dust will have settled and once we have delivered on our pledge to beat this virus, we should not look into ways to modernize the WHO, to see what should be done for the WHO to continue to live up to the new challenges, because we need multilateral approaches.”
“But let us for now focus on our most immediate challenges,” she continued, adding “you can count on Europe to always play for the team.”
Europe’s support for the WHO comes amid escalating tensions with China. The desire to better understand how an animal virus managed to make its way into human lungs is also addressed in the resolution — an inquiry that would require cooperation from Beijing — and Trump’s concerns about China’s early transparency are widely shared by Western governments.
But here, too, the question concerns timing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, addressing the WHA on Monday, said Beijing would back “the idea of a comprehensive review of the global response to COVID-19 after it is brought under control.”
A new internal report from a WHO oversight panel took that same view, warning that looking at the past too quickly could jeopardize the response in the present.
In interim recommendations drawn from a look at the WHO’s response to COVID-19 between January and April, the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee for the WHO Health Emergencies Program said a review of the WHO leadership’s handling of the pandemic could be warranted.
However, it added, “conducting such a review during the heat of the response, even in a limited manner, could disrupt WHO’s ability to respond effectively.”
The report, published Monday according to Tedros, doesn’t weigh in on how the WHO engaged with China. Instead, it notes that some countries didn’t seem to take the WHO’s warnings seriously enough.
That ties into Trump’s accusation that Tedros slow-walked the declaration of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) at China’s behest. Yet the oversight committee said the varied responses by countries to that declaration, issued on January 30, “raises questions about whether Member States view a PHEIC declaration as a sufficiently clear trigger.”
The report also urged enhanced “openness and transparency” related to the Emergency Committee that advises the WHO chief on declaring such emergencies.
Unity on access
Other points of contention traded over videoconference included political hot buttons such as Taiwan’s status at the WHO (since it’s not a U.N. member, it can’t directly participate); Russia’s takeover of Crimea; and U.S. sanctions against Iran and Cuba.
But there was unanimity on the concrete outcome of the WHA: the COVID-19 resolution, adopted without objections and co-sponsored by at least 144 of the WHO’s 194 members.
In addition to calling for the review, the measure also lays out principles for equal access to coronavirus breakthroughs, calling immunization a “global public good.”
Tedros said in a speech that COVID-19 “threatens to tear at the fabric of international cooperation.”
“A coronavirus vaccine should not be a luxury for a chosen few,” von der Leyen said.
For its part, Washington didn’t formally block the measure. But it did issue a written statement disassociating itself from several points, including language on abortion access.
It also rejected the suggestion of new patent pooling mechanisms in response to the pandemic — saying it would only back existing voluntary ways to share intellectual property. And it rejected paragraphs on equal access to medicines that the Trump administration views as undermining patent protections for pharma and removing a key incentive for innovation.
Asked about Trump’s latest threat to the WHO on Tuesday, Commission spokeswoman Virginie Battu-Henriksson sided with the health body, saying that now it was the time for solidarity and not “finger-pointing.”
In the same spirit, Tedros said in his speech that COVID-19 “threatens to tear at the fabric of international cooperation,” and vowed repeatedly that the WHO would continue its work: “Let solidarity be the antidote to division. Let our shared humanity be the antidote to our shared threat.”
Carlo Martuscelli and Lili Bayer contributed reporting.
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