President Trump said Friday that the United States is “terminating” its relationship with the World Health Organization (WHO) over its response to the novel coronavirus, following through on a threat issued earlier this month.
Speaking at a press conference in the White House Rose Garden, Trump accused the WHO of being under China’s “total control” and of failing to make reforms requested by his administration. The president said he would “redirect” funds promised to the WHO to assist other global health needs.
“We have detailed the reforms that it must make and engaged with them directly, but they have refused to act,” Trump said.
The announcement marks a further escalation with the global health body in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and prompted criticism from the health community. It follows a decision in mid-April to suspend funding to the WHO pending a review of the organization’s handling of the coronavirus.
The United States contributes upwards of $400 million annually to the WHO — the group’s largest contributor — and public health experts have warned that a suspension of funds would severely damage the organization.
The American Medical Association said in a statement that the decision to cut ties with the WHO “serves no logical purpose and makes finding a way out of this public health crisis dramatically more challenging.”
“This senseless action will have significant, harmful repercussions now and far beyond this perilous moment, particularly as the WHO is leading worldwide vaccine development and drug trials to combat the pandemic,” the association said in urging Trump to reverse course. “COVID-19 affects us all and does not respect borders; defeating it requires the entire world working together.”
Lawrence Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University who has served on various WHO expert advisory committees, said the move would make Americans and the world less safe.
“Just at a time when we need unity at the World Health Organization, the president of the United States has thrown a hand grenade in the middle of a pandemic,” Gostin said.
The decision also prompted bipartisan backlash in Congress. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Senate health committee, said the U.S. should examine mistakes made by WHO but argued the time to do that would be after the public health crisis subsides.
“Withdrawing U.S. membership could, among other things, interfere with clinical trials that are essential to the development of vaccines, which citizens of the United States as well as others in the world need,” Alexander said in a statement. “And withdrawing could make it harder to work with other countries to stop viruses before they get to the United States.”
Trump has focused criticism on the WHO for several weeks, portraying the organization as being too “China-centric” and accusing it of failing to sufficiently warn the global community about the threat from the virus. Conservatives have likewise criticized the organization of being too trusting of information from Beijing.
A WHO representative declined to comment on the president’s announcement.
The WHO has defended its initial response to the coronavirus pandemic, saying it gave the world enough time to intervene by declaring COVID-19 a global health emergency on Jan. 30.
Trump’s complaints about the WHO have punctuated criticism of his own statements minimizing the threat of the virus early on — he said in late February that the number of domestic coronavirus cases would soon be “close to zero.” Over 1.7 million Americans have been sickened from COVID-19 as of Friday afternoon and more than 100,000 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The Trump administration has also been faulted for delays in coronavirus testing that experts say cost critical weeks early on during the U.S. response.
Trump sent a strongly worded letter to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on May 18 threatening to permanently withhold funding and withdraw from the global body if it didn’t commit to implementing “major substantive improvements” within 30 days.
At the time, a WHO spokesperson said the organization had received the letter and was “considering” its contents.
Trump’s announcement about the WHO came during a brief Friday news conference focused largely on the U.S. relationship with China. Trump rebuked Beijing for its handling for the coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, blaming China for the health and economic devastation the pandemic has caused.
“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 one million lives worldwide,” Trump said.
“Countless lives have been taken and profound economic hardship has been inflicted all around the globe,” he added.
Trump claimed that China ignored its reporting obligations to the WHO and pressured the body to “mislead the world when the virus was first discovered by Chinese authorities.”
He also pointed out that U.S. contributions to the global health body dwarf those from China by tens of millions of dollars.
Congress, which allocated funding for the WHO in the current spending bill, could challenge Trump’s decision in court, Gostin said, though such a move would likely set into motion a prolonged legal battle.
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