US hasn’t taken action to withdraw from WHO despite Trump pledge

President Trump’s announcement that the United States would end cooperation with the World Health Organization (WHO) in the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic has not resulted in any formal action, and American institutions are still engaged in longstanding relationships with the Geneva-based international agency.

Trump, upset at what he says is the WHO’s inability to hold China to account for the coronavirus that began circulating in Wuhan sometime in 2019, said last month the U.S. would withhold funding and terminate its relationship with the United Nations-affiliated body.

“Because they have failed to make the requested and greatly needed reforms, 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 on May 29.

Two weeks later, no steps toward a formal withdrawal have been taken. A WHO spokesman told The Hill that the agency had received no formal notification that the United States would withdraw.

Senior WHO officials said they continue their relationships with American agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“We worked with U.S. colleagues at U.S. CDC, NIH and a number of academic institutions across the whole country in a variety of networks and different types of platforms since the beginning of the pandemic and that will continue,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, an American who oversees the WHO’s technical response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Mike Ryan, who directs the WHO’s emergencies program, said the agency is still working with American counterparts in other areas, including a new outbreak of the Ebola virus in Congo.

“We rely heavily on our colleagues and institutions in the U.S. like CDC, like NIH and like the hundreds of collaborating centers that this organization has across the United States,” Ryan said at a Monday press conference, in response to The Hill’s inquiry. “We will continue to do that until we are otherwise instructed or informed.”

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday he had been in touch with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar about the new Ebola outbreak in Congo.

“We had a very good discussion with Secretary Azar last week, and he assured me of [the] U.S.’s continued commitment to support in the fight especially against Ebola,” Tedros told reporters.

A spokeswoman for the NIH referred questions about the agency’s relationships with the WHO to the White House. Two CDC spokespeople did not respond to messages seeking comment over the last several days.

In a statement, a National Security Council spokesman declined to directly address the United States’s relationship with the WHO.

“President Trump’s decision to suspend funding to the WHO pending a full review of the organization’s mismanagement of the coronavirus outbreak in no way diminishes U.S. leadership on global health matters, including the current COVID-19 pandemic,” the spokesman, John Ullyot, said in an email.

“The United States is the world’s single-largest global health donor, and the American people have continued that legacy of generosity in the global fight against COVID-19,” he wrote. “The United States has committed $10.2 billion to the global COVID-19 response. At the same time, we continue to ensure that the substantial U.S. funding and scientific efforts on this front remain a central and coordinated part of the worldwide effort against COVID-19.”

A senior administration official said the WHO had been complicit in allowing China “to cover up the source of the virus.”

“The WHO cannot credibly carry out its mission until it reforms and demands full accountability and transparency from China and all member states,” said the official, who declined to be named.

The WHO first detected what would come to be known as COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, through a cluster of atypical pneumonia cases at a hospital in Wuhan on Dec. 31. The agency pressured China to release information about the cases, and eventually to publish genome sequences for study by scientists around the globe.

While the WHO publicly praised China for its response, senior officials in Geneva grew frustrated at China for dragging its feet in releasing information. Recordings of internal meetings obtained by The Associated Press show Van Kerkhove, Ryan and WHO’s senior officer in China strategizing about how to apply pressure to the Chinese government.

Ryan compared the Chinese response to a similar attempt to cover up information about an outbreak of another coronavirus, SARS-CoV-1, which causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, in 2002.

“This is exactly the same scenario, endlessly trying to get updates from China about what was going on,” Ryan said on one recording. “WHO barely got out of that one with its neck intact given the issues that arose around transparency in southern China.”

Asked to confirm the recording last week, Ryan bluntly refused.

But the incident has illustrated just how few options an international body like the WHO has, given its inability to levy sanctions or other punishments.

In some cases, it can shame governments, especially smaller countries, into action. But in China, the WHO has prized maintaining its ability to surveil the country for the emergence of new pathogens over any attempts to call the government out publicly.

Morgan Chalfant contributed.

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump United Nations World Health Organization

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