A White House review of the United Nations health agency’s actions found serious mistakes in its handling of the outbreak and an ‘alarming lack of independence’ from China.
(CN) — President Donald Trump is threatening to withdraw the United States from the World Health Organization unless it makes major improvements in the next 30 days.
Trump issued his ultimatum late Monday in a letter to the global health agency’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. His threat escalates his feud with Tedros, who he accuses of helping China hide the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in December.
“It is clear the repeated missteps by you and your organization in responding to the pandemic have been extremely costly for the world,” Trump said in the letter. “The only way forward for the World Health Organization is if it can actually demonstrate independence from China.”
Trump said there was “no time to waste” and gave Tedros 30 days to commit to make “major substantive improvements.” Unless that is done, Trump said the U.S. will consider dropping out of the WHO and permanently cutting funds to the global health agency.
“I cannot allow American taxpayer dollars to continue to finance an organization that, in its present state, is so clearly not serving America’s interests,” Trump said.
Trump froze funding to the WHO — a United Nations agency coordinating efforts to end the Covid-19 pandemic — on April 14 and ordered his administration to probe the agency’s actions in handling the coronavirus outbreak. His move to freeze funding in the middle of the pandemic was widely criticized by world leaders. However, since then others, including Australia and some European nations, have raised questions about China’s transparency over the coronavirus outbreak.
On Tuesday, Tedros did not directly respond to Trump’s allegations, but he has said his agency acted quickly to warn the world about the virus. Tedros, who is a former Ethiopian health minister, was elected to head the agency in 2016 with the backing of China and African nations.
Tedros spent Tuesday at the World Health Assembly, an annual gathering of the WHO’s decision-making forum made up of representatives from the world’s 194 member states. He was expected to hold a news briefing Tuesday, but that event was canceled.
On Tuesday, the World Health Assembly – meeting in a virtual format due to the pandemic – voted in favor of a European Union resolution calling for an independent evaluation of the international response to the pandemic. The probe also will examine the WHO’s role.
In a speech to the assembly Tuesday, Tedros welcomed the review and said WHO “wants accountability more than anyone.”
On Twitter, Tedros retweeted a quote from Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta saying “now is not the time for the blame game but to collaborate and find solutions for global recovery not just for pandemic but also climate change.”
Trump said his administration’s review of the WHO’s actions found serious mistakes in its handling of the outbreak and an “alarming lack of independence” from China. His letter laid out his case against the WHO, but it presented no evidence and little that was new. The letter also included at least two falsehoods. In recent weeks, the U.S. has claimed it has evidence that the virus escaped from a virology laboratory in Wuhan, but Trump did not make that claim in his letter.
Trump accused the WHO of ignoring “credible reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December 2019” and failing to “independently investigate” those reports.
China officially notified the WHO about an outbreak of unusual pneumonia cases in Wuhan on Dec. 31. On Jan. 11, China said the outbreak was caused by a novel coronavirus. But it took until Jan. 22 for the WHO, relying on information from China, to announce that the virus was being transmitted between humans. However, WHO says it was telling experts early on that human-to-human transmission was possible.
In his letter, Trump cited reports that doctors in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, were reporting an outbreak of pneumonia cases related to a coronavirus before the Chinese government did.
At the time, some Chinese doctors believed that people were afflicted with SARS, a respiratory disease caused by a coronavirus that emerged in 2002 in China. At the time, China was accused of covering up the SARS outbreak too.
Trump said Dr. Zhang Yongzhen, a doctor with the Shanghai Public Health Clinic Center, told Chinese authorities on Jan. 5 that he had sequenced the genome of the virus. But Trump said news that the virus was a novel coronavirus only became public after Zhang posted it online.
“The next day, Chinese authorities closed his lab for ‘rectification,’” Trump’s letter said. “As even the World Health Organization acknowledged, Dr. Zhang’s posting was a great act of ‘transparency.’”
He accused the WHO of being “conspicuously silent” about the closing of Zhang’s lab and the doctor’s claims that he told Chinese authorities about his discovery six days before he posted it online.
Trump accused the WHO of making “grossly inaccurate or misleading” claims about the virus. He faulted the agency for echoing China’s assertion in mid-January that the coronavirus appeared to not be transmitted between humans. He said China “censored reports from Wuhan” that said it could be passed between humans.
The president also claims the WHO chose not to declare the coronavirus outbreak an emergency on Jan. 22 under pressure from Chinese President Xi Jinping and only did so after “overwhelming evidence to the contrary forced you to reverse course.”
Trump blasted Tedros for praising China for its transparency after he met with Xi on Jan. 28. By this time, China had placed Hubei under lockdown in an effort to contain the virus. Tedros lauded China for this, saying it had “bought the world time.”
“You did not mention that China had, by then, silenced or punished several doctors for speaking out about the virus and restricted Chinese institutions from publishing information about it,” Trump said.
The WHO has defended its actions, saying it did not declare an international health emergency on Jan. 22 because of disagreements among members of an international emergency committee evaluating how serious a threat the virus posed. Citing confidentiality, the committee has not revealed which members were opposed to calling an emergency.
The WHO declared the virus an international health emergency on Jan. 30, shortly after Tedros led a WHO team to China to see firsthand whether the outbreak warranted being classified an international emergency.
Trump also accused the WHO of not doing enough to force China to quickly allow an international team of medical experts to visit Wuhan and examine the outbreak. After such a team was permitted to visit China on Feb. 16, Trump said China only allowed limited access to Wuhan and refused to let two American team members visit the afflicted city. Trump accused the WHO of not objecting to China’s actions.
In its defense, the WHO has said it does not have the power to force countries to open borders to inspectors. Under international law, the WHO does not have the power to impose sanctions or other forms of punishment. This powerlessness leaves it unable to force countries to take action or be more transparent, experts say.
Trump also blasted the WHO for objecting to his ban on travel from China, which the White House imposed shortly after the international health emergency was declared on Jan. 30.
“Your political gamesmanship on this issue was deadly, as other governments, relying on your comments, delayed imposing life-saving restrictions on travel to and from China,” the president’s letter states.
Trump blasted Tedros for saying on Feb. 3 that the spread of the virus outside China was “minimal and slow.” Trump also faulted him for “opining that because China was doing such a great job protecting the world from the virus, travel restrictions were ‘causing more harm than good.’”
He claims the WHO downplayed the risk of the virus being spread by people without symptoms. On March 3, he said, the WHO told the world that “Covid-19 does not transmit as efficiently as influenza” and that unlike influenza, this disease was not primarily driven by “people who are infected but not yet sick.”
But he said the WHO was relying on Chinese data that was being questioned by experts outside China.
“It is now clear that China’s assertions, repeated to the world by the World Health Organization, were wildly inaccurate,” he said.
On March 11, the WHO declared the virus a pandemic after a serious outbreak was discovered in northern Italy. Many epidemiologists said the agency was slow to declare a pandemic. By the time that happened, more than 4,000 people had died from the virus and more than 100,000 people in at least 114 countries had been found infected.
“Throughout this crisis, the World Health Organization has been curiously insistent on praising China for its alleged ‘transparency,’” Trump said. “You have consistently joined in these tributes, notwithstanding that China has been anything but transparent.”
Trump accused China of ordering samples of the virus to be destroyed in early January and “depriving the world of critical information.”
The president also blamed China for “refusing to share accurate and timely data, viral samples and isolates” and “withholding vital information about the virus and its origins.”
He said China was denying “international access to their scientists and relevant facilities, all while casting blame widely and recklessly and censoring its own experts.”
Chinese officials rejected Trump’s allegations on Tuesday.
At a news conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the U.S. was shifting blame to others, according to Xinhua, a Chinese state news agency.
The spokesman said Trump was trying to “mislead the public vaguely and to smear China,” the news agency said.
He also accused the U.S. of shirking its international duties by freezing its funding to the WHO.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.