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.”
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.