President Trump said Friday the U.S. would halt its funding of the World Health Organization and pull out of the agency, accusing it of protecting China as the coronavirus pandemic took off. The move has alarmed health experts, who say the decision will undermine efforts to improve the health of people around the world.
In an address in the Rose Garden, Trump said the WHO had not made reforms that he said would have helped the global health agency stop the coronavirus from spreading around the world.
“We will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization and redirecting those funds to other worldwide and deserving urgent global public health needs,” Trump said. “The world needs answers from China on the virus.”
It’s not immediately clear whether the president can fully withdraw U.S. funding for the WHO without an act of Congress, which typically controls all federal government spending. Democratic lawmakers have argued that doing so would be illegal, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi threatened last month that such a move would be “swiftly challenged.”
The United States has provided roughly 15% of the WHO’s total funding over its current two-year budget period. A WHO spokesperson declined to comment Friday.
Trump’s announcement came the same day that the U.S. mission in Geneva met with Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, about the country’s demands for WHO improvements. A source familiar with the meeting described it as constructive.
Some congressional Republicans have echoed Trump’s attacks on the agency, but in a statement Friday, Sen. Lamar Alexander, the chair of the Senate’s health committee, said he disagreed with Trump.
“Certainly there needs to be a good, hard look at mistakes the World Health Organization might have made in connection with coronavirus, but the time to do that is after the crisis has been dealt with, not in the middle of it,” said Alexander (R-Tenn.). “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. And withdrawing could make it harder to work with other countries to stop viruses before they get to the United States.”
Lawrence Gostin, the faculty director at Georgetown’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, called Trump’s decision “a dangerous move.”
“It’s making an earth-shattering decision in the middle of the greatest health crisis we’ve experienced literally out of pique and whim, without any deliberative process,” Gostin said.
The WHO has repeatedly said it was committed to a review of its response, but after the pandemic had ebbed. Last month, Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also said the “postmortem” on the pandemic should wait until the emergency was over.
But as the Trump administration’s response to pandemic has come under greater scrutiny, with testing problems and a lack of coordination in deploying necessary supplies, Trump has sought to cast further blame on China and the WHO for failing to snuff out the spread when the virus was centered in China. During his remarks, Trump alleged, without evidence, that China pressured WHO to mislead the world about the virus.
“The world is now suffering as a result of the malfeasance of the Chinese government,” Trump said. “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 a million lives worldwide.” (That last claim is not true; globally, there have been about 360,000 confirmed deaths from Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.)
Trump’s phrasing highlights the buildup of China-U.S. tensions amid the pandemic. After a Chinese government spokesman suggested, without evidence, that the U.S. Army first brought the novel coronavirus to Hubei province, Trump retaliated by using the terms “Wuhan virus” and “Chinese virus” — words widely condemned as racist, and which coincided with a rash of racist incidents targeting Asian Americans.
Experts say that if the U.S. leaves the WHO, the influence of China will only grow.
“Global health was our bipartisan moral leadership that had been preserved through this administration,” said Amanda Glassman, executive vice president of the Center for Global Development. “And right now … that falls apart. It’s really to me tragic that this one space that was really about our moral leadership and our convictions and soft power … that we’re now going to let that go in the midst of a pandemic.”
Glassman said there are thousands of U.S. employees at the WHO and its regional body for the Americas, and that the U.S. is home to 82 WHO collaborating centers.
When Trump earlier this month threatened to yank U.S. funding in a letter, Tedros would only say during a media briefing that the agency was reviewing it. But he and other officials stressed that the agency had a small budget — about $2.3 billion every year — relative to the impact the agency had and what it was expected to do.
Mike Ryan, head of the WHO’s emergencies program, said the U.S. funding provided the largest proportion of that program’s budget. In addition to the pandemic, the program also works to combat HIV, tuberculosis, polio, and other diseases.
“So my concerns today are both for our program and … working on how we improve our funding base for WHO’s core budget,” Ryan said. “Replacing those life-saving funds for front-line health services to some of the most difficult places in the world — we’ll obviously have to work with other partners to ensure those funds can still flow. So this is going to have major implications for delivering essential health services to some of the most vulnerable people in the world and we trust that other donors will if necessary step in to fill that gap.”
This story has been updated with reaction to the president’s announcement.
Lev Facher contributed reporting.