Biden moves to halt US exodus from World Health Organization

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President Biden is taking steps to reengage with the World Health Organization (WHO), reversing a decision the Trump administration made in July, several months into the coronavirus pandemic.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden signed an executive order Wednesday to stop the U.S.’s departure from the organization, fulfilling a promise he made during the campaign.

Formal withdrawal requires a year’s notice, so former President Trump’s decision would not have taken effect until July 6. 

As part of the move, Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, will head the U.S. delegation to WHO and participate in the organization’s executive board meeting Thursday.

“Once the United States resumes its engagement with the WHO, the Biden-Harris Administration will work with the WHO and our partners to strengthen and reform the organization, support the COVID-19 health and humanitarian response, and advance global health and health security,” Biden’s transition team said in a statement.

The WHO’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been fraught, but public health experts largely criticized Trump’s isolationist approach. 

Trump repeatedly assailed the organization for alleged bias toward China and used it as a scapegoat for his own administration’s pandemic response. Meanwhile, the U.S. has the most deaths and COVID-19 cases of any country in the world. 

Trump first froze funding for the WHO in April while his administration conducted a review of its relationship with the entity. Weeks later, he wrote to the WHO demanding reforms but did not specify what those reforms would be.

Critics of the WHO have pointed to its initial assertion that the coronavirus could not be spread via human-to-human transmission, and Trump harped on the organization’s opposition to travel bans after he imposed one on China.

House Republicans on Wednesday blasted the move, saying the WHO was an echo chamber for China’s propaganda and should not receive American taxpayer dollars.

China has been far from transparent in its investigations into the origins of COVID-19 and has muzzled doctors and other whistleblowers. While the WHO has been reluctant to call attention to these issues, experts said the absence of U.S. participation created a void that China happily filled.   

Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of State, told senators during a confirmation hearing Tuesday that reforming the WHO is something that can best be done from within.

“The WHO is a very imperfect organization in need of reform,” Blinken said, but he added that one of the reasons President Biden was so determined to rejoin was ” that we’re going to be in a much more effective position to advance that reform of the WHO if we’re there at the table than if we’re outside the organization.”

Blinken also said the U.S. intends to join Covax, the WHO-led effort to develop and distribute a coronavirus vaccine to low- and middle-income countries. 

Biden previously had not officially committed to participating in the initiative.

“We believe strongly that we can ensure that every American gets the vaccine but also help make sure that others around the world who want it have access to it,” Blinken said. 

Laura Kelly contributed to this report.

Tags Anthony Fauci Antony Blinken Coronavirus Covax COVID-19 COVID-19 vaccines Donald Trump Jen Psaki Joe Biden World Health Organization
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