More than a dozen United States experts were working at the World Health Organization and feeding the Trump administration information last December as the coronavirus spread through China, according to reporting by the Washington Post.
That reporting stands in contrast with President Donald Trump’s accusations that the WHO spent late 2019 “severely mismanaging” the global response to the virus — and that it was “covering up” information to paper over China’s inability to contain Covid-19. And it comes days after the president announced he would be freezing US funding for the WHO in the midst of a global health crisis in retaliation for these alleged failings.
In fact, according to the Post, Trump administration officials helped guide WHO policy — and worked to ensure the US was informed of new coronavirus developments as soon as the international body learned about them.
A top official from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was part of the committee that advised the WHO on whether to declare a global public health emergency in late January. Two US scientists were part of the WHO’s information gathering mission to China in mid-February. A CDC official has compiled daily reports of outbreaks in consultation with WHO counterparts and passed along information to higher-ups in the organization through daily briefing calls. And upcoming WHO plans and announcements were reportedly shared days in advance with top US officials like Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
The WHO has been criticized for its handling of the pandemic — including whether the organization waited too long to declare a global emergency and if it has been too liberal in its praise for China’s response — but the Post’s reporting indicates that lack of early communication of the threat to the US was likely not one of its missteps.
Trump claims otherwise, telling reporters last Tuesday, “The reality is that the WHO failed to adequately obtain ... and share information in a timely and transparent fashion.”
He has repeated this allegation — along with a claim the WHO didn’t want him to institute a travel ban — a number of times in recent days, seemingly in an attempt to blame the international organization for the US’s current coronavirus crisis.
Trump has used the WHO to shift blame from his own administration
Trump has been criticized for weeks over his response to the coronavirus in the US, which his critics — and most Americans — have argued was dangerously slow. While weathering this criticism, the president has increasingly looked to the WHO as a party to blame for any of the US coronavirus shortcomings.
Trump’s frustrations with the organization seemed to begin in late January, when top officials in the WHO said governments don’t need to “unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade” to stop the spread of the disease, after Trump announced he would be partially banning travel from China. The organization didn’t directly criticize the US, which wasn’t the only country imposing travel restrictions at the time.
“Travel restrictions can cause more harm than good by hindering info-sharing, medical supply chains and harming economies,” said the World Health Organization director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, at the time.
In early April, faced with growing scrutiny over his early response, Trump became increasingly explicit in his critiques of the organization, tweeting that the WHO “really blew it.”
“For some reason, funded largely by the United States, yet very China centric,” he wrote. “We will be giving that a good look.”
The W.H.O. really blew it. For some reason, funded largely by the United States, yet very China centric. We will be giving that a good look. Fortunately I rejected their advice on keeping our borders open to China early on. Why did they give us such a faulty recommendation?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 7, 2020
As Vox’s Lois Parshley reported, the criticism didn’t end there:
Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, and Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration under Trump, criticized its handling of China’s data and transparency. Gottlieb told Face the Nation, “Going forward, the WHO needs to commit to an after-action report that specifically examines what China did or didn’t tell the world and how that stymied the global response to this.”
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, on April 13 announced a plan to investigate the origins of the virus and the global response, including the WHO’s decisions. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chair Ron Johnson told Politico, “We need to know what role WHO might have had in trying to cover this thing up.”
Trump’s threat to stop sending the millions of dollars the country sends annually to the WHO would be a devastating blow to the organization, which is helping to coordinate the global response to Covid-19. The US is the organization’s single largest funder, providing 22 percent of all member state assessed contributions and often hundreds of millions more in voluntary contributions.
It’s not clear whether he can stop the $116 million that’s been appropriated to the agency by Congress, but it seems he may be allowed to reroute the funding to other organizations or withhold it until next year.
The WHO may continue to be a scapegoat for the Trump administration, but experts have urged him not to take it out on an agency they largely agree has avoided major missteps.
“How can you threaten to withdraw funding from the world’s leading global health agency in the midst of a pandemic, with tens of thousands of people dying?” Lawrence Gostin, a professor at Georgetown University and a past critic of WHO’s director-general, told Parshley. “It’s utterly irresponsible.”