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caption: 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. Here, Mike Ryan, a WHO executive director, walks past the group's headquarters in Geneva.
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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. Here, Mike Ryan, a WHO executive director, walks past the group's headquarters in Geneva.
Credit: REUTERS

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

President Trump is giving the World Health Organization 30 days to commit to substantial changes in how it operates — or else 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 letter to 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 the WHO leader bowed to pressure from China, the president said.

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 question about 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."

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 is coming 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 with Trump facing a reelection vote in less than six months, the U.S. economy is in a tailspin, with millions of jobs lost to the shutdown.

Critics say 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. 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 EU-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. [Copyright 2020 NPR]