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Trump Says Funding Cuts Will Be Permanent If WHO Doesn't Commit To 'Major' Changes

President Trump says the WHO has been too quick to praise China for its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak and too silent on the country's treatment of medical professionals who tried to sound the alarm.
Denis Balibouse
President Trump says the WHO has been too quick to praise China for its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak and too silent on the country's treatment of medical professionals who tried to sound the alarm.

Updated at 3:45 p.m. ET

President Trump is giving the World Health Organization 30 days to commit to substantial changes in how it operates — or he will make his hold on U.S. funding permanent. The threat came in a letter that sharply criticizes the WHO response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its relationship with China.

"The World Health Organization has repeatedly made claims about the coronavirus that were either grossly inaccurate or misleading," Trump wrote in the four-page letterto WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

In response to the president's message, a WHO spokesperson issued a statement saying, "WHO acknowledges receipt of the letter from the President of the United States. We are considering the contents of the letter."

Trump lodged a number of complaints against Tedros and the WHO in the letter, including an accusation that Tedros should have declared the coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern before Jan. 30, but that the WHO leader bowed to pressure from China.

Trump says the WHO has been too quick to praise China for its handling of the outbreak and too silent on the country's treatment of medical professionals who tried to sound the alarm about the coronavirus. He also said the WHO "gratuitously reaffirmed China's now-debunked claim that the coronavirus could not be transmitted between humans," citing a Jan. 14 statement by a WHO official.

After Trump announced a temporary hold on U.S. funding last month, Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO's Health Emergencies Programme, responded to a questionabout the U.S. leader's criticisms by saying, "We alerted the world on Jan. 5. Systems around the world, including the U.S., began to activate their incident management systems on Jan. 6."

Regarding transmission, Ryan said, "There is always a risk with respiratory pathogen that it can move from person to person."

In response to Trump's letter, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the U.S. president was "trying to mislead the public, smear China's efforts and shift the blame of U.S. incompetence to others."

Noting that the pandemic is still inflicting personal and economic damage, Zhao said it's crucial to boost cooperation to fight the coronavirus. And he called on the international community to support the WHO, politically and financially.

"Picking on China while shirking and bargaining away its own international obligations to WHO," Zhao said, "the U.S. has obviously miscalculated the situation and made a mistargeted move."

The U.S. is the largest single donor to the WHO – although as NPR's David Welna recently reported, the U.S. was already nearly $200 million in arrears on its obligations to the organization when Trump halted payments last month.

Trump is intensifying his accusations against the WHO as his own administration comes under intense scrutiny for its response to the COVID-19 crisis. Two months after widespread shutdowns took effect in many states, the U.S. has now confirmed more than 1.5 million COVID-19 cases — almost a third of the global total, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. And Trump is facing a reelection vote in less than six months, with the U.S. economy is in a tailspin and millions of jobs lost to the shutdown.

Critics say that Trump failed to heed early warning signs of a looming epidemic and that his administration's response, particularly a bungled approach to testing, is a key reason the U.S. also leads the world in deaths from COVID-19.

Those critics include The Lancet medical journal, which last week published an editorial calling on U.S. voters to replace Trump and elect a leader who will empower the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite that editorial, Trump mentioned The Lancet prominently in his letter to Tedros, citing it in the first bullet point in his own timeline of the coronavirus origin and response.

"The World Health Organization consistently ignored credible reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December 2019 or even earlier, including reports from The Lancet medical journal," Trump wrote.

In response to that mention, the U.K.-based journal issued a statement saying in part, "This statement is factually incorrect. The Lancet published no report in December, 2019, referring to a virus or outbreak in Wuhan or anywhere else in China."

The journal says its first reports on the coronavirus were published on Jan. 24.

Members of the WHO officially called for a review of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic on Tuesday, adopting an European Union-backed resolution that asks Tedros to begin an "impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation." More than 50 countries co-sponsored the resolution — including China, the original epicenter of the epidemic.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.

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