As the pandemic rages, the United Nations health agency has been dragged into the middle of an escalating blame game between the United States and China.
(CN) — Saying it is crucial to focus on “fighting the fire” of an accelerating pandemic, the head of the World Health Organization on Wednesday gave no indication he was ready to mollify President Donald Trump, who has threatened to pull the United States out of the global health agency he labels “China’s puppet.”
The spat between the WHO and Trump comes as the novel coronavirus spreads at alarming rates around the world. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the WHO reported record numbers of new infections, with a majority of the more than 100,000 daily new cases popping up in the Americas. After hitting Europe and the United States, the virus is spreading in poorer parts of the world, raising the specter of even worse devastation.
“We still have a long way to go in this pandemic,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, during a news briefing Wednesday.
Worldwide, the number of confirmed cases is nearing 5 million and more than 325,700 people have died from Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus. Brazil is now the country where infections and deaths are soaring.
While the pandemic rages, China and the United States are grappling in an escalating blame game over the outbreak and the WHO has been dragged into the middle of it.
On Monday, Trump gave the WHO 30 days to make changes to prove its independence from China or face the U.S. permanently cutting funds to the agency and even dropping out of the United Nations agency. Trump did not specify what changes he wants, but he may be seeking for the top leadership to step down. He froze funding to the WHO in April.
Tedros deflected questions about Trump’s threats and accusations that he helped China cover up the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in December and January.
He said his agency was reviewing Trump’s letter in which he demanded changes to demonstrate its independence from China.
“We have of course received the letter and we are looking into it,” Tedros said without adding more.
On Tuesday, the WHO’s decision-making body made up of 194 member states, the World Health Assembly, passed a resolution calling for an independent investigation into the origins of the virus and how the world, including the WHO, handled the outbreak. The U.S. is demanding an investigation into the origins of the virus and alleges, without evidence, that it escaped from a virology laboratory in Wuhan.
Tedros said the review will take place “at the earliest possible time.” But he did not specify when that might be and stressed that the focus now should be on curbing the pandemic.
“The most important thing now is fighting the fire, saving lives,” he said.
He also pointed to a report by an independent oversight committee of the WHO released Monday. The report said the WHO had responded faster to this outbreak than it did for the MERS and SARS epidemics. SARS and MERS were diseases caused by coronaviruses similar, though less infectious, to the one now bringing the world to its knees.
Instead, the report faulted countries for not taking steps to stop the spread of the virus after the WHO declared it an international emergency on Jan. 30.
Still, many experts have criticized the WHO’s actions, charging it downplayed the threat of the virus because it was over-relying on information from China and then took too long to declare the outbreak a pandemic. The WHO called it a pandemic on March 11 after a serious outbreak was discovered in Italy.
Tedros said the agency will need to find funds from other donors if the U.S. decides to cut its funding. The U.S. has long been the agency’s top contributor, providing more than $400 million a year.
The WHO runs a worldwide operation with about $2.3 billion a year, which is equivalent to the budget of a university hospital in the United States.
“Imagine: a budget of a medium-sized hospital in a developed world for WHO, which is actually working in the whole world. So that’s small,” Tedros said.
As the U.S. turns its back on the WHO, China is seen as seeking to gain more influence over the agency. On Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced $2 billion in funding for dealing with the pandemic.
Dr. Michael Ryan, the head of emergencies at the WHO, said the U.S. contributions are critical for humanitarian operations. He said his emergency program receives about $100 million a year in U.S. funds, the biggest proportion.
“So this is going to be a major implication for delivering essential health services to some of the most vulnerable people in the world,” Ryan said. “And we trust other donors will, if necessary, step in to fill that gap.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.