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WASHINGTON — Health secretary Alex Azar on Monday publicly blasted the World Health Organization, telling its director-general that the agency’s “failure” to adequately warn the broader world about the forthcoming Covid-19 pandemic “cost many lives.”

In a prepared video delivered to the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s governing body, Azar said the U.S. government would support a full review of the organization’s Covid-19 response, calling the status quo “intolerable.”

“We must be frank about one of the primary reasons this outbreak spun out of control,” Azar said. “There was a failure by this organization to obtain the information that the world needed, and that failure cost many lives.”


Azar’s combative remarks follow months of harsh rhetoric directed toward the WHO by President Trump, who last month announced the U.S. would suspend funding for the global health body. The president is likely to follow through with a total cut to American taxpayer dollars for the WHO, Axios reported Sunday.

Azar’s aggressive tone, however, marked a new level in overt hostility on the part of the U.S. government. In recent months, as the pandemic accelerated through the United States, he had frequently cited WHO guidance and, in interviews, referenced multiple conversations with Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the agency’s director-general.


Azar also spoke harshly of China, arguing that the country’s early information-sharing, as researchers and health officials discovered mysterious new cases of a pneumonia-like disease in December and early January, hampered worldwide preparations for the pandemic.

“In an apparent attempt to conceal this outbreak at least one member state made a mockery of their transparency obligations, with tremendous costs for the entire world,” Azar said. “We saw that WHO failed at its core mission of information-sharing and transparency when member states do not act in good faith.”

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Tedros has been heavily criticized, especially among U.S. conservatives and some Republican lawmakers, for Jan. 29 remarks in which he effusively praised the Chinese response to the crisis. Azar had also criticized the Chinese government throughout January for refusing to allow a team of U.S. researchers and epidemiologists to enter Hubei province, the pandemic’s epicenter, to gather information and provide support to the country’s outbreak response.

Yet Azar’s remarks reflect a familiar pattern within the federal government’s coronavirus response: shifting blame toward China as the crisis on U.S. soil spiraled out of control.

Before he began to sharply criticize the country’s response and that of the WHO, Trump himself repeatedly praised China throughout January and February, telling Fox News in a Feb. 13 interview that Chinese president Xi Jinping had handled the crisis “very professionally.”

Azar also called for the WHO to grant Taiwan an observer post within its assembly, a move that China has long resisted. The authority to add member states or confer observer status, however, rests with other WHO member nations, and not with Tedros or WHO leadership.

Despite criticisms of the WHO’s early coronavirus response, unrelated missteps in the U.S. have led to roughly 90,000 deaths since March — by far the highest death toll of any nation, though it ranks behind several European countries on a per-capita basis.

  • So, the govt/CDC did not want to take the WHO test but were so looking forward to take guidance from the WHO. Right, got it.
    Since when did the US Republican leaders take any guidance from any UN bodies for anything at all? Not saying Democratic leaders take it all the time, but Republicans, hah!
    Now if only the WHO came and held them at gunpoint or fear of torture, I would believe them taking input from UN/WHO

  • Azar is blame-shifting. But he may be correct that, thanks to China, WHO could not overtly react to the early Taiwan warning. WHO is a UN organization. Taiwan is blackballed by the UN. Also, it seems clear to me that China was under-reporting deaths as attributable to COVID-19 as late as the end of March. I was running data trying to predict mortality rates for elderly by scaling reported Chinese data against USA health norms for age 60+. As I added and scaled data from Italy (which had much higher reported mortality rates but co-morbidities more similar to USA populations) it still seemed something was wrong with Chinese data.

    Was it the central Chinese government? Was it local officials in Wuhan looking to hide problems? Were WHO folks really playing this down?

    I’m not a medical researcher. But as an ASTM member, I helped write the test protocols EPA eventually adopted 40 years ago for indoor air pollution and second-hand smoke… and protocols for testing N95 and N99 masks, oddly enough. So don’t take what I say as coming from a particularly high place.

    But Azar should look to the incompetence and laziness his own agency and to the White House for the largest share of the blame. After all, the Europeans had less warning than we did, made plenty of mistakes, and still performed better than the USA.

  • The US would have been a lot better off if the federal government management had been offshored to the WHO or China (or South Korea, or Viet Nam, or Canada, or Denmark, or any other country with competent adults in charge).

  • Anytime someone points their finger at someone accusing them of not doing something, anything, always notice there are 3 fingers pointing straight back at themselves. Our lack of US leadership is the biggest single reason our death toll will top not only the total raw numbers but even on a per capita basis the number of cases and deaths attributed to Covid-19 in due course.

    • Birx made those comments back on March 30 based on models available at that time. As we get more detail on the epidemiology of COVID-19 and also consider measures taken to keep it from spreading, mortality predictions will be refined with this new information.

    • Of course, chief among the long list of “gaffs and missteps” was the ‘head-in-the-sand’ approach of the Trump administration (including Birx) for approximately 8 weeks after the first US COVID19 patient was diagnosed January 20. Had the United States been only half as effective as South Korea in dealing with the crisis, there’d be 85,000 fewer dead Americans.

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