The Trump administration’s attack on the U.N. health agency is just the latest White House accusation that the agency is a tool of the Chinese government.
(CN) — The head of the World Health Organization said Thursday there is no basis to claims Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made during a visit to London this week alleging China bought his election to lead the global health agency in 2017.
During a private talk at the conservative think tank Henry Jackson Society in London on Tuesday, Pompeo asserted without providing evidence that China struck a deal with Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and purchased the election that saw Tedros become the WHO director-general, British media reported.
It was the latest attack by the Trump administration against the United Nations health agency coordinating the global response to the coronavirus pandemic. The White House alleges the WHO is a tool of the Chinese government and in an unprecedented step Trump has taken steps to remove the U.S. from the organization.
In the meeting at the think tank with British politicians, Pompeo alleged “a deal was made” involving China to get Tedros elected, British media reported. He claimed his allegations were based “on a firm intelligence foundation.”
Pompeo also said the WHO is a “political not a science-based organization” and charged the election of Tedros led to “dead Britons” during the pandemic.
“When push came to shove, you’ve got dead Britons because of the deal that was made,” Pompeo told a group of parliament members, according to the Guardian newspaper.
At a news briefing from the WHO headquarters in Geneva on Thursday, Tedros dismissed Pompeo’s allegations as baseless.
“The comments are untrue and unacceptable and without any foundation for that matter,” Tedros said. “WHO will not be distracted by these comments and we don’t want the entire international community to also be distracted.”
Tedros said the U.S. should not play politics during a pandemic that has left more than 630,000 people dead and more than 15.5 million infected with the virus.
“One of the greatest threats we face continues to be the politicization of the pandemic,” he said. “I have said it many times: Covid politics should be quarantined.”
In 2017, the candidacy of Tedros, a former Ethiopian health minister, was backed by African nations and China.
The attack by Pompeo also elicited a strong response from Tedros’ colleagues, Dr. Mike Ryan, an Irishman who leads the WHO’s emergencies program, and Maria Van Kerkhove, an American infectious disease specialist who is the WHO’s technical lead on the pandemic.
“I have never been more proud to be WHO,” Van Kerkhove said, adding that she wanted to speak up as a “proud” American.
“I see firsthand every day the work that Dr. Tedros does,” she said. “We are firmly focused on saving lives, as Dr. Tedros has said; firmly focused, we will not be distracted.”
Ryan too appeared offended by Pompeo’s remarks.
“Many of us have worked seven days a week, 20 hours a day for the last seven months. Everything we think, everything we do, is focused on saving lives,” Ryan said. “We are proud, proud to be WHO and we will remain so and we will serve the vulnerable people of the world regardless of what is said about us.”
Ryan praised Tedros for helping transform the WHO, an organization that he said “truly needed to change.”
Tedros is the first WHO director-general who is not a medical doctor and also the first African to lead the agency. But he also carried into the job some controversy. For example, he was accused of covering up cholera outbreaks while he was Ethiopia’s health minister.
To become WHO chief, Tedros defeated David Nabarro, a British public health expert, with the backing of China. Before the election, he said he would abide by the “One China” principle that views the breakaway island of Taiwan as part of China.
While in London, Pompeo also met British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. The U.K. is becoming a strong ally for President Donald Trump in his campaign against China.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.