(CN) — Under attack from the Trump administration, the chief of the World Health Organization said Wednesday cutting funds to his agency puts the lives of people around the world at risk.
“Whatever funding is coming to WHO is saving lives,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the agency’s director-general. “I hope the U.S. believes this is an important investment not just to help others, but to also make the U.S. safe as well.”
His comments come amid allegations by President Donald Trump and his Republican allies that the WHO did not put enough pressure on China and warn the world about the threat posed by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, a major industrial city. Last week, Trump put a freeze on WHO funds pending an investigation.
The U.S. has not provided proof to back up its charges against the WHO. But there is growing scientific evidence that the novel coronavirus potentially had been circulating for weeks and posed a clear threat well before China notified the WHO on Dec. 31 about the outbreak. Doctors in Wuhan were raising alarms about an outbreak of illnesses before the end of December too.
Initially, China said it was investigating a cluster of unusual pneumonia cases linked to a wet market. Twelve days later, it announced the cases were related to a coronavirus, but it took another 10 days before the WHO, relying on Chinese studies, said the virus was being transmitted between humans.
Trump accuses the WHO of helping China cover up the outbreak. He said funds to the WHO will be withheld until a review of the agency’s response to the pandemic is finished. The U.S. is the WHO’s largest contributor, providing it with about $400 million a year.
The WHO is a United Nations agency that acts as a technical adviser on global health matters. But it had no legal authority to force China into action or send experts to investigate the cases without China’s permission.
Dr. Michael Ryan, the head of emergencies at WHO, said the agency has “no legal authority over any country on this planet.”
“We cannot enter countries without permission, we have no right of enforcement,” he said. “The power we have is to persuade, persuade by science.”
From the outset, the WHO has praised China for being transparent and quickly providing information about the virus, including its genetic sequence on Jan. 12. The agency has hailed China’s steps to contain its epidemic and rigorously track down infected people.
Tedros said the WHO gave the world ample warning when it issued its highest alert for an international health emergency on Jan. 30. At that time, he said there were only 82 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and no deaths outside of China.
“So looking back I think we declared the emergency at the right time and when the rest of the world had enough time to respond,” he said during a news briefing at the WHO headquarters in Geneva. “That was enough [time] to cut it from the bud. That was two months and 21 days ago, close to three months.”
But criticism may be broadening over the handling of the first outbreak by China and the WHO.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is calling for an investigation into the agency’s response. He said he has spoken with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron to gain their support.
Morrison said he wants to give the WHO the power to send investigators into a country to examine disease outbreaks in a similar fashion to weapon inspectors who verify disarmament programs.
China blasted Morrison’s comments and accused him of doing Trump’s bidding.
Tedros has welcomed a review of his agency’s handling of the pandemic, but he said the focus now needs to be on fighting the virus.
“We work day and night,” he said about his agency. “And I will continue to work day and night.”
Tedros has become a controversy in this battle between China and the U.S. and Republican politicians are calling on him to resign. Tedros is a former Ethiopian health minister and the first WHO head who is not a medical doctor. He was elected to head the agency with the support of China and African nations.
He dismissed calls for him to step down and said he was committed to “changing this organization for the good.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.