WASHINGTON — President Trump said Tuesday that the United States would halt funding to the World Health Organization, the global health agency that has been a leading voice in coordinating the world’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The shocking announcement appears to be in response to Trump’s anger over the WHO’s criticisms of U.S. policy.
“They’ve been wrong about a lot of things,” Trump said. “We’re going to put a hold on money [sent] to the WHO. We’re going to put a very powerful hold on it.”
Later in the briefing, Trump said his announcement was not a decision to end all U.S. funding for the agency, but rather a chance to give his administration the chance to “look at it.” The WHO did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. has provided the agency with $893 million during the agency’s current two-year funding period, which includes about $236 million in dues. That funding accounts for about 14.67% of the WHO’s total funding, according to the organization’s website. The WHO is also notoriously cash-strapped; the annual dues members companies pay to support its annual budget have been frozen for more than a decade.
The WHO has been sounding the alarm over the coronavirus since early January. By late February the group’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, urged countries to prepare — before the U.S. had widespread community transmission of the virus. The WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on March 11.
On Tuesday evening, Trump insisted that the WHO “called it wrong” when it came to Covid-19.
“They really called every aspect wrong,” he said. “They said there’s no big deal, there’s no big problem.”
Trump also lashed out at the WHO for criticizing his decision in January to block travel to the U.S. from certain countries. Officials at the agency never explicitly criticized that decision.
“They actually criticized and disagreed with my travel ban at the time I did it, and they were wrong,” Trump said.
Public health experts did criticize Trump’s initial travel bans, suggesting they can make responding to an outbreak more challenging. While officials at the WHO did not call out either the U.S. or other countries’ bans, they have advised against travel bans in this pandemic, as in past outbreaks, because they can “divert resources from other interventions,” according to agency guidelines dated Feb. 29.
It’s also unclear whether Trump’s travel ban was successful, as he claims. While public health experts have suggested it may have bought the U.S. time to prepare for the pandemic, it did not stop cases from arriving in the U.S. And many believe the U.S. squandered the extra time it bought.
Tom Bollyky, director of the global health program at the Council on Foreign Relations, who is tracking Covid-19 cases globally, suggested the same was true for this pandemic, in a series of tweets on Tuesday.
“Travel bans neither stopped the spread of this novel coronavirus nor prevented it from becoming a pandemic,” Bollyky said on Twitter.
Jimmy Kolker, a longtime U.S. diplomat and former assistant secretary for global affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, called Trump’s hold on funding “counterproductive to our interests as well as to global health,” and “unethical.”
“If the U.S. abandons that leadership, there’s a real risk that other countries will take the easy way out and say, ‘Well, my contribution is going to be insignificant because the U.S. isn’t paying, so why should I bother?'” he said. “It’s not going to achieve any result that he or others have connected to this in terms of how China has behaved.”
The announcement, which came during Trump’s daily press briefing Tuesday evening, came following a tweet criticizing the WHO earlier in the day.
“The W.H.O. really blew it. For some reason, funded largely by the United States, yet very China centric. We will be giving that a good look. Fortunately I rejected their advice on keeping our borders open to China early on. Why did they give us such a faulty recommendation?” Trump tweeted.
Trump’s claims that the WHO is “China-centric” are the latest in a growing trend of conservative criticisms waged at the organization. Trump’s remarks come on the heels of the calls in late March for an investigation into the WHO by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.).
Helen Branswell contributed reporting.