(CN) — In an escalating fight with China, the United States on Monday attacked the World Health Organization for what it called failures that “cost a lot of lives,” an accusation that cast a shadow over a global health assembly seeking to bring countries together as the world tackles the coronavirus pandemic.
The U.S. attack was launched during the World Health Assembly, an annual gathering of health ministers and world leaders from the 194 nations that make up the WHO, the United Nations health agency coordinating efforts to end the pandemic. Because of the pandemic, the two-day meeting is being held virtually with speakers connected via computer to the Geneva headquarters of the WHO.
“There was a failure by this organization to obtain information that the world needed, and that failure cost us many lives,” said U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar.
His line of attack was not new and comes after U.S. President Donald Trump froze funding to the WHO in April and accused it of working with China to cover up the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. The U.S. alleges the virus escaped from a virology laboratory in Wuhan, but it has provided no evidence to back up its claims. Striking back, China has suggested the U.S. created the virus in one of its laboratories and it is trying to build a scientific argument that the virus originated outside China.
Before Azar's attack, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke to the assembly and defended his nation's actions while also pledging $2 billion to fight the pandemic. By pledging that sum, China appears interested in getting plaudits for filling the gap left by the U.S. after it froze WHO funds.
“All along, we have acted with openness, transparency and responsibility,” Xi said in a video link. “We have provided information to WHO and relevant countries in a most timely fashion.”
He said China released the genome sequence of the virus “at the earliest possible time” and shared its knowledge on how to treat the disease “without reservation.”
Xi also said China will back a “comprehensive review” of how the world responded to the pandemic. He said the review must be done with science and impartiality.
This was an apparent concession to the U.S. and its allies, in particular Australia, that have been calling for an independent international investigation into the origins of the virus.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said his agency welcomes an independent evaluation.
Although it was not a new attack, Azar's brief speech was in stark contrast to the tone set by nearly all other countries – including China – at the World Health Assembly.
With the opening of the assembly late morning Monday, representatives from around the world were beamed up on screens and pledged unwavering support for the WHO, praised its leadership and pledged solidarity in the fight to tackle the pandemic.
One after another, heads of state and health ministers concurred: The pandemic is humanity's worst crisis in decades and the world must come together in a common fight against a common enemy, a microbe bringing the world to its knees.
“Covid-19 must be a wake-up call,” said Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general.
“Despite the enormous scientific and technological advances of recent decades, a microscopic virus has brought us to our knees,” he said.
He said the pandemic had exposed “global fragility” and shown that it was “time for an end to this hubris” of not dealing with the world's pressing problems of climate change, nuclear disarmament and cybersecurity.
“Deadly global threats require a new unity and solidarity,” Guterres said.