President Trump said Friday the U.S. would halt its funding of the World Health Organization and pull out of the agency, accusing it of protecting China as the coronavirus pandemic took off. The move has alarmed health experts, who say the decision will undermine efforts to improve the health of people around the world.
In an address in the Rose Garden, Trump said the WHO had not made reforms that he said would have helped the global health agency stop the coronavirus from spreading around the world.
“We will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization and redirecting those funds to other worldwide and deserving urgent global public health needs,” Trump said. “The world needs answers from China on the virus.”
It’s not immediately clear whether the president can fully withdraw U.S. funding for the WHO without an act of Congress, which typically controls all federal government spending. Democratic lawmakers have argued that doing so would be illegal, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi threatened last month that such a move would be “swiftly challenged.”
The United States has provided roughly 15% of the WHO’s total funding over its current two-year budget period.
The WHO has repeatedly said it was committed to a review of its response, but after the pandemic had ebbed. Last month, Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also said the “postmortem” on the pandemic should wait until the emergency was over.
As the Trump administration’s response to pandemic has come under greater scrutiny, with testing problems and a lack of coordination in deploying necessary supplies, Trump has sought to cast further blame on China and the WHO for failing to snuff out the spread when the virus was centered in China.
During his remarks, Trump alleged, without evidence, that China pressured WHO to mislead the world about the virus. Experts say that if the U.S. leaves the WHO, the influence of China will only grow.
“The world is now suffering as a result of the malfeasance of the Chinese government,” Trump said. “China’s coverup of the Wuhan virus allowed the disease to spread all over the world, instigating a global pandemic that has cost more than 100,000 American lives, and over a million lives worldwide.” (That last claim is not true; globally, there have been about 360,000 confirmed deaths from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.)
When Trump earlier this month threatened to yank U.S. funding in a letter, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, would only say during a media briefing that the agency was reviewing it. But he and other officials stressed that the agency had a small budget — about $2.3 billion every year — relative to the impact the agency had and what it was expected to do.
Mike Ryan, head of the WHO’s emergencies program, said the U.S. funding provided the largest proportion of that program’s budget.
“So my concerns today are both for our program and … working on how we improve our funding base for WHO’s core budget,” Ryan said. “Replacing those life-saving funds for front-line health services to some of the most difficult places in the world — we’ll obviously have to work with other partners to ensure those funds can still flow. So this is going to have major implications for delivering essential health services to some of the most vulnerable people in the world and we trust that other donors will if necessary step in to fill that gap.”