An American withdrawal from the World Health Organization could wreak profound damage on the global effort to eradicate polio and could undermine the world’s ability to detect and respond to disease threats, health experts warned.

The experts, from the United States and beyond, are aghast at President Trump’s announced intention to leave the organization, which he publicly blames for not being tougher on China in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic — at a time when he himself was praising China’s unprecedented efforts to control the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The agency has not yet commented on Trump’s announcement.

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If it leaves the organization, which was established in 1948, the United States will give up an outsized role in the global health agency and the setting of global health priorities. While Trump has accused the WHO of kowtowing too much to China, in reality, experts acknowledge, other countries have sometimes bristled at how much sway the U.S. has at the Geneva-based agency.

“The U.S. has always had an extraordinary influence at the WHO — I mean to the extent that other countries have complained about American influence,” Ilona Kickbusch, a longtime former WHO official and chair of the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.

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In fact, when the WHO underwent a series of reforms following its catastrophic early response to the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak — including setting up a permanent health emergencies program — a lot of the changes implemented were made at the behest of the United States, said Ashish Jha, director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute.

The ranks of WHO’s staff are swollen with Americans, some hired directly — such as Stewart Simonson, one of the agency’s assistant director-generals — others on secondment from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or other agencies. Were the U.S. to pull out of the WHO, it’s unclear what would happen to the Americans in its ranks — including Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s leading expert on coronaviruses, who flanks Director-General Tedros Adhamon Gheybreyesus during the agency’s three-times-weekly Covid-19 press conferences.

“Just think of it: Maria Van Kerkhove, would she have to leave the WHO now?” asked Amanda Glassman, executive vice president of the Center for Global Development. “Is that what our goal is? Because those U.S. employees are not going to be there. U.S. nationals would not be eligible for employment. So we are giving up leadership of the Covid-19 response, basically.”

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American experts also play key roles in most WHO advisory committees; the country has a seat on the WHO’s executive board. As well, when the WHO has established emergency committees to determine whether this or that disease outbreak constitutes a global threat — a public health emergency of international concern, or a PHEIC — there is virtually always at least one American on the panel. Whether American expertise would be so central after the country’s withdrawal is unclear.

“The U.S. has played an outsized role in global health … across a range of issues,” Jha said. “And I think its absence at the WHO would really harm the organization.”

Withdrawing during a pandemic — or even threatening, should the president back down, or Congress find a way to block the move — is unconscionable, said Tom Bollyky, director of the global health program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Fending off incoming attacks from a U.S. president during a pandemic is a harmful distraction for the agency at a time when it is being stressed like never before, he suggested. If the U.S. withdraws and weakens the WHO, that in turn will undermine the health agency’s ability to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, potentially prolonging it.

While the U.S. has placed high hopes on early access to vaccine for Americans, the reality is that as long as Covid-19 rages around the world, supply chains will be disrupted, the global economy will be stressed and international travel will remain perilous. Until the outbreak is contained globally, the risks the virus poses will be felt everywhere — among the vaccinated and the unvaccinated.

“If we were to bring this about, we would diminish funding, but we would also diminish any international coordination on the response to this pandemic, which again will make every day Americans’ lives less safe. It’s a disastrous decision,” Bollyky said.

Beyond the pandemic, health programs that the U.S. has long championed — whether that’s combatting the spread of drug-resistant tuberculosis, trying to stop the spread of HIV, or slowing the assault of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria — will be weakened by a U.S. withdrawal from the WHO, said David Heymann, a longtime former WHO official, who lead the agency’s response to the SARS outbreak in 2003.

Heymann, who for a time oversaw the global polio eradication program, fears that effort in particular will suffer if the U.S. leaves the WHO. It is a critical time for the long-standing effort to rid the world of polio; while only two countries — Afghanistan and Pakistan — continue to see spread of wild polio, vaccination efforts have been halted because of the pandemic.

“The polio eradication program is very near completion, with many strong donors to it, and the U.S. has been one of the most faithful and strong. And it would be a shame not only for the United States, but for Rotary International, which has provided so much funding for that as well,” said Heymann, an American who heads a committee that advises the WHO’s health emergencies program.

  • “…could undermine the world’s ability to detect and respond to disease threats, health experts warned.”

    You mean the way they just did during the coronavirus outbreak? You mean they way they’ve been able to create a vaccine for the SARS virus? You mean like the CDC who your site just reported in another article, deliberately used dishonest data to persuade the American public to get vaccinated, just because they said so, not because the numbers supported their advice?

    I think Trump is crazy on so many levels and in so many ways, but, not supporting The WHO is not the craziest idea I’ve heard.

  • Are you actually serious?

    Fending off incoming attacks from a U.S. president during a pandemic is a harmful distraction

    WHO did not act appropriately in communication with the World, not just the USA. Dump Tedros and make changes and the money and talent will show up.

  • The impeached one is making yet another excuse for his pathetic response to the incoming wave of Covid. Sure, blame the WHO.
    I mean anyone with a brain saw this coming from all angles, not just China.
    Excuses excuses.
    Now the guy is in a bunker.

    • Too bad the only treatment for TDS is an agility to accept that points of view that conflict with your ideology are just as valid as your own.

  • People are missing the point. The impeached one is under orders for us to be detached from the rest of the world. With no friends anymore, no pacts, no treaties, nothing, we are in a bad spot if something like a 9/11 would happen so he can get elected for for years.

    • The Notguilty one, impeached only by Democrat Party clones who have to do what Pelosi demands if they want campaign money, makes only an effort to get other countries to be responsible allies. Otherwise, make your point with specifics.

  • Actually a US withdrawal may be the best thing that happens to the WHO. With any luck this will force them to reform. The biggest problem the UN has is corruption and just how little of the money the WHO gets, actually gets spent on things that actually help people.

    • I agree with this – there is corruption in all levels of government throughout the world and the UN and The Who are no exception. Tired of giving money to support corruption.

  • We don’t need to be involved in any organization that collaborates with the CCP. If you’re collaborating with the likes of them, you’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.

    • ‘China shop’ is right. This organization does exactly what China tells them to.

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