WHO Director General “Regrets” Trump Decision To Suspend Organization’s Funding; UN, European Union, China and Others Decry US Move
Dr Tedros speaking at WHO’s regular COVID-19 press briefing.

The European Union, China, and Norway Wednesday joined UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in decrying United States President Donald Trump’s decision to suspend US funding to the World Health Organization – at a critical moment in the international agency’s coordination of the global COVID-19 response.

Trump announced Tuesday night that the US administration would suspend WHO’s funding for a “term of 60-90 days” pending an investigation into the agency’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. However, it’s unclear whether his decision can really be implemented without being approved by the US Congress, which approves allocations to the agency. 

Despite repeated attacks by the US president over the past week, WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus struck a conciliatory note in a press briefing Wednesday, saying: “The United States has been a longstanding and generous friend to WHO, and we hope it will continue to be so. We regret the decision of the President of the US to order a halt in funding to WHO.”   

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres decried the US move, in protests that were quickly echoed by the European Union, China, and Norway as well as global health philanthropist Bill Gates and a range of other global health organizations.  Richard Horton, editor of the prestigious biomedical journal The Lancet, which has steered an independent line on the handling of the crisis, called it a “crime against humanity.”

It is my belief that the World Health Organization must be supported, as it is absolutely critical to the world’s efforts to win the war against COVID-19,” said Guterres in a press release. 

“There is no reason justifying this move at a moment when [WHO’s] efforts are needed more than ever to help contain and mitigate the coronavirus pandemic,” Vice-President of the European Commission Josep Borrell Fontelles tweeted Wednesday.

Fontelles added that he “deeply regrets [the] US decision to suspend funding to WHO…. only by joining forces can we overcome this crisis that knows no borders.”

Individual countries also decried the US moves, with current and former Norwegian leaders among some of the most critical voices. 

“The last thing we need now is to attack the WHO,” said Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Norwegian prime minister as well as having been herself at the helm of the WHO from 1998-2003 when the SARS crisis erupted in Asia, speaking to the Norweigian News Agency.

Norwegian Health Minister Bent Høie added, “It’s more important and critical than ever to support the important international work that’s being done to stop the pandemic…Norway believes we must strengthen WHO in its work, not weaken the organization.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry officials, meanwhile, “expressed serious concerns” over the suspension of US funding. Spokesman Zhao Lijian said in a Wednesday briefing, “The decision of the US will weaken the WHO’s ability to handle the pandemic, especially the nations whose capabilities are not well developed.”

Global Health Community Condemns WHO Defunding 

Leaders in the global health community also sharply criticized the US administrations’ moves. 

“Every scientist, every health worker, every citizen must resist and rebel against this appalling betrayal of global solidarity,” he tweeted in a fiery comment on Wednesday.

In a similar vein, the heads of global health’s biggest philanthropies condemned the suspension of funding, even urging the US to step up financing for the Organization during the global crisis.

“Halting funding for the World Health Organization during a world health crisis is as dangerous as it sounds…The world needs WHO now more than ever”, Bill Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), the global health industry’s largest private donor, tweeted Wednesday. “Their work is slowing the spread of COVID-19 and if that work is stopped no other organization can replace them.”

“The World Health Organization (WHO) plays a critical role and needs more resources, not less, if we’re to have the best chance of bringing this pandemic to an end,” added Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, a major funder of global health research and development, in a statement released Wednesday. “We are facing the greatest challenge of our lifetime…No other organisation can do what [WHO] does.

““Viruses know no borders, as COVID-19 has proven. The only way out of this pandemic is by working together and ensuring all countries, especially lower and middle income countries, have the tools and resources to tackle this.”

“There is only one adversary here: the virus. It is in all our best interests to work with and strengthen the WHO”, said Jose Luis Castro, President and CEO of Vital Strategies, a global public health organization and trusted partner of governments, in a tweet.

US Politicians & Organizations Push Back Against WHO Funding Suspension

The US President announced on Tuesday at a White House briefing that funding to WHO would be suspended pending an investigation, due to what he claimed had been a pattern of “severely mismanaging and role in covering up the spread of the coronavirus.” 

In his 10 minutes of prepared remarks Tuesday night, Trump alleged that “WHO’s reliance on China’s disclosures likely caused a twenty-fold increase in [COVID-19] cases worldwide”– he did not cite a source for the claims.

US President Donald Trump At Coronavirus Press Briefing

Almost immediately after the President’s announcement, US politicians from the Democratic party heaped scorn on the decision, claiming that Trump was scapegoating WHO for missteps by his own administration. 

Withholding funds for WHO in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century makes as much sense as cutting off ammunition to an ally as the enemy closes in,” US Senator Patrick Leahy said Tuesday “This White House knows that it grossly mishandled this crisis from the beginning.”

Along with claiming that WHO had played into China’s hands in its handling of the crisis, Trump also directed his ire towards WHO’s early opposition to travel restrictions and bans, claiming it was one of the Organization’s “most dangerous and costly decisions.” 

Throughout January and much of February, WHO had recommended against such bans due to advice from independent public health experts, but the Organization never directly referenced the US in its critiques.  

In a follow-up statement released on Wednesday, The White House further alleged that missteps taken by the WHO included hiding early reports of human-to-human transmission from the public.

The White House claims that WHO had ignored early warnings from Taiwan, whose government is not recognized by WHO’s governing body of member states, about the emergence of the virus and possible human-to-human transmission.

Taiwan contacted the WHO on December 31 after seeing reports of human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus, but the WHO kept it from the public,” alleged the White House statement on the suspension of WHO funding.

On 15 January, WHO Emergencies Technical Lead Maria Van Kerkhove first told journalists that it was possible that the virus was being transmitted, human-to-human, saying, “From the information that we have, it is possible that there is limited human-to-human transmission, especially among families who have close contact with one another.”  

The White House statement also took WHO to task for failing to declare the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC) on 22 January.

The Organization made the declaration a week later on 30 January. That was a month and a half before the US government declared a national state of emergency, and during a period when Trump even praised China at times for its management of the crisis, including in late January, when Trump tweeted “the United States greatly appreciates [China’s] efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”. 

China & Taiwan Reports at Center Of US Critique – WHO Tries to Set Record Straight 

In Wednesday’s WHO briefing, the head of WHO’s Emergency Team as well as WHO’s Legal Counsel, sought to set the record straight around some of the criticism that Trump and his Administration have recently levied.

WHO Executive Director of Health Emergencies Mike Ryan acknowledged that the agency had received reports from “multiple sources…on the 31st of December regarding a cluster of cases of atypical pneumonia in China.” All the reports “emanated from a press release or a publication on the website of the Wuhan Health Authority,” according to Ryan.

Kerkhove added that Taiwanese experts had also been invited to participate in key WHO working groups on infection prevention control and case-management of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. 

On the issue of Taiwan’s membership in the WHO however, the Organization’s hands were tied, WHO’s senior legal counsel stated. 

Steve Solomon, WHO’s principal legal officer said, “We are in the hands of countries on these issues. Operational staff doesn’t have the mandate or power to change that,” he said adding that the decision hearkens by to a vote by the UN in 1971: 

“In 1971, the countries of the United Nations decided to recognize the People’s Republic of China as the only legitimate representative of China…WHO is the specialized health agency of the United Nations and as such aligns with the United Nations and must do so coherently.”

Steve Solomon, Principal legal officer of the WHO, speaks on Taiwan’s legal status at a COVID-19 press briefing.

In a rebuttal of the WHO statements, Taiwan’s Mission to the United Nations in Geneva issued a statement on Wednesday evening, saying that UN and World Health Assembly decisions recognizing the goverment in Beijing as the representative of China, should not imply Taiwan’s complete  from consultations and decision-making mechanisms of the global health body. The official called upon WHO to invite Taiwan to this year’s upcoming World Health Assembly meeting of member states as an “observer.”

“UNGA [Resolution] 2758 and WHA [Resolution]  25.1 only addressed the question of China’s representation,” said Chenwei Ku, Assistant Director of the Mission. “It neither states that Taiwan is a part of China nor authorizes the PRC to represent Taiwan in the UN system. In fact, these resolutions have nothing to do with Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations. In advancing its global health mandate, WHO should recognize the fact that Taiwan administers its own independent public health system, and only the Government of Taiwan, which is democratically elected by Taiwanese people, can represent 23 million Taiwanese people and can truly take full responsibility for the health and welfare of its population.

“During the current pandemic, Taiwan has further been taking actions to help the world combat the spread of COVID-19, by providing medical equipment and sharing relevant experiences. We call on the WHO to uphold its professionalism and neutrality as mandated by its Constitution, and to invite Taiwan to this year’s WHA as an observer and including Taiwan to fully participate in all WHO meetings, mechanisms and activities.”

World Leaders Call For WHO To Lead “Pan-African” COVID-19 Response Mechanism

Just as one country’s leadership was threatening to defund the WHO, some 18 African and European world leaders called on the WHO to lead a “pan-African” COVID-19 response, in a letter published on Wednesday by the European Council, the heads of state of members of the European Union. 

“We must support a pan-African scientific and political mechanism that will coordinate African expertise with the global response led by the World Health Organization, and ensure a fair allocation of tests, treatments and vaccines as they become available”, said the 18 country and regional leaders. The authors of the letter include Giuseppe Conte, Prime Minister of Italy;  Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda; Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission; Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany; Charles Michel, President of the European Council; Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa; and Felix Tshisekedi, President of Democratic Republic of Congo, among others.

With the WHO at the forefront, a “joint action plan” will be developed in collaboration with numerous organizations, including the World Bank, the ADB, Global Fund, Gavi and Unitaid. 

The letter also called for an “immediate moratorium on all bilateral and multilateral debt payments” as well as a $100 billion economic stimulus package to give the African continent fiscal space to respond to COVID-19.

Foreign aid should also promote regional manufacturing capacity to prevent over-reliance on donations, especially given unstable supply chains and sovereign need being prioritized over aid, said Yolse, a Geneva-based association focused on access to medical technologies in West Africa, in a statement to Health Policy Watch

“Today, very few African countries are in a position to produce protective equipment or even manufacture generics for diagnostic tools, future treatments and vaccines”.

“Aid to vulnerable countries should not be limited to treatments, vaccines and diagnostic tools. There is a need to support the creation of sustainable health infrastructure and promote production of essential medical products in sub-Saharan Africa.”

As therapeutics with potential to treat COVID-19 become more visible and widely-used, Yolse also urges African countries to take immediate legal measures to ensure equitable access to drugs, just in case pharmaceuticals patent them. 

“We call on OAPI Member States to take immediate national measures such as compulsory licensing or public non commercial use in order to avoid pharmaceutical patents being a barrier to access to future COVID-19 treatments and vaccines.”

Gilead’s HIV drug, Remdesivir, is patented by the African Intellectual Property Organization (AIPO), says Yolse, potentially hampering 13 member countries in development from gaining access to the drug.

Svet Lustig Vijay contributed to this story.

Image Credits: White House, Twitter: @WHO.