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.”

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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.

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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.

  • I SAT AND WATCHED EVERYDAY AS THERE WERE REPORTS FROM WHO. THEY TOLD US IT WAS COMING .I WAS NOT SURPRISED BECAUSE THEY SAT THERE FOR WEEKS AND SAID IT WAS GETTING WORSE .THAT THERE COULD BE A PANDEMIC. and EVEN IF TRUMP HAD HEARD A STRONGER WARNING HE WOULD HAVE NOT DONE ANYTHING. WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN SAID THET HE WOULD HAVE HEARD. HE WAS IN TOTLA DENIAL AND HE STILL IS.

  • Tedros was naieve in believing China’s numbers and dates – the WHO should have investigated right away. The delay in knowledge delayed measures to curb spread. Then Trump also caused delay – in denial as warning bells were clanging loudly in outbreak countries he down-played the pandemic. The pot is now calling the kettle black. Both the WHO and the POTUS stand to be corrected. To now spit on the WHO from a war-mongering distance has zero positive constructive effect. If the US wants any say in what the WHO has to do (such as getting China to pay retribution) , the US must remain “in” as full-paying member – and learn to sit around the table with other heads of state to collectively get things done. Solo brash-balling only alienates a nation.

    • When Wuhan first detected pneumonia of unknown cause in the end of December 2019, it was an utter fog of war. And even though the Chinese authority reported it to WHO, neighbouring countries/territories, and the US etc. on Jan 3, 2020 and later Chinese scientists, with record speed, identified the sequence of the novel virus and published it globally around Jan 12, much of what we know about it toady was still in the dark: its symptoms, its transmissibility, its incubation time, its prognosis etc. It took another 10-12 days for the experts to conclude definitively that this virus is capable of human-to-human transmission, with key parameters like R0 and fatality still opaque. The Chinese government eventually imposed lock-down on Wuhan on Jan 23.
      Ambushed by an invisible enemy never seen before, China, understandably, was initially behind the situation. Belated containment measures in no doubt had a consequence but an overwhelming part of it was on Wuhan, with the rest being largely on other parts of China. The international spill-over was minimal at most: by the time Wuhan was quarantined on Jan 23, only 4 other nations had confirmed cases, all under 5; by the time WHO declared the outbreak a PHEIC, public health emergency of international concern, only 106 cases were confirmed outside China, with each country having less than 15 cases (US, in particular, in case you are curious, had 6). It was not until Feb 17 that the first outbreak outside China emerged in South Korea, followed by Italy’s on Feb 22. These figures unequivocally demonstrate that the subsequent exponential growth in cases in each country was largely, if not entirely, the consequence of respective governmental inaction. Had other countries, especially the West, paid even an ounce of genuine attention since Wuhan and the entire China were put in quarantine on Jan 23, or when PHEIC was declared on Jan 30, and started to take proactive measures, the pandemic would have been just an epidemic.
      To put it in a nutshell, while China, as a pioneer in this global fight, fumbled during the 10-day period before Jan 23 and paid the price at home, it, by imposing drastic measure from then on, also bought the West, if not the entire world, precious time to get ready. Unfortunately, the time was carelessly and arrogantly squandered. So no, China takes minuscule, if any, responsibility of the onset of the global outbreak outside China.

  • Fascinated by all the fact-free Trump apologists commenting on this. What do they hope to gain by lying to STAT readers, who actually know and believe things called “verifiable facts”… or are the IDs just faked from Russia or the Trump campaign? I cut Azar a little slack in my first comment, but frankly, he’s a jerk whose first priority is getting Trump re-elected, not in saving lives.

  • this writer is obviously bias ; all of my family has phd’s in sciences from Harvard, Yale, Columbia and 3 generations at Cambridge university ; he has zero knowledge of science and a virus does not see who blames who for the spread of the virus ; science can be the only remedy ; ignorance much

  • “Combative remarks”, “Agressive tone”, “overt hostility”, “spoke harshly”, “publically blasted”, blah, blah, blah, blah. What a crock of crap. Another spurious and overtly biased (pun intended) drive by opinion piece (presented as a “news” story) designed to trash the Trump Administration. When will these clueless writers (who masquerade as “news” reporters) understand that many readers are sick and tied of being told what to think and would much rather read a straight forward recitation of the actual facts related to a given story and be left to formulate their own conclusions.

    Azar spoke the truth, at least as he and many others see the issues he was discussing. The writer and many or few others, whatever the case may be, are free to disagree. But the writer doesn’t have any unique insight on this subject, so rather than presenting his “opinions” as “truth” he should take Joe Friday’s advice: “Just the facts; just the facts!”

    Please stop pouting about the President, take off your diaper and put on your Big Boy Pants and write objective pieces that don’t insult the intelligence of your readers.

    I started reading STAT a month or so ago expecting it would present factual and unbiased information regarding various important issues pertaining to medical and pharmaceutical topics. Regrettably I’m finding far too few stories that stick to “just the facts” and far too many that are littered with anti Trump trash. If I want a steady diet of anti Trump fare I’ll read the NYT, WaPo or just about any AP byline. I don’t need to read STAT to get that.

    Do YOU get that, STAT? Keep your feelings about Donald Trump to yourself and stick to your mandate on EVERY SINGLE ARTICLE that isn’t specifically identified as an Opinion piece. I’m not naive enough to think they’ll take my advice, but IMHO several of their writers need to be reminded of it, each and every time they sit down at their keyboard.

    Sorry for the lengthy vent, but sadly I’m rapidly losing my conviction regarding the value of following, and potentially supporting, the “journalism” provided by this publication.

    • I have to admire you ability to write so many words without even a modicum of concrete material.
      The fact is US has the largest number of confirmed cases, the most fatality, a CFR that is higher than China, India, South Korea etc. That is the result of none other than the incompetence of Trump administration. Then instead of showing real leadership and scrambling to contain the virus, Trump and his lapdogs turned to the blame game on China and WHO, while watching the numbers still climbing day by day.
      What a bunch of losers, you included.

    • Sounds like you’ve lost more than your “conviction” or whatever you meant to say. This write-up is right on – WHO did admirably and the USA disaster keeps moving their spotlight to find out who to stick the blame to. If two months of warning of an impending deadly disease isn’t enough for your organization, I don’t think anything could’ve forced you to prepare.

  • this is outrageous – he is utterly tainted by the commander in-competent. US first case in January – then inaction – huge loss of life due to the disastrously led DC response.

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