The World Health Organisation's chief expressed dismay on Wednesday after US President Donald Trump decided to suspend funding to the body over concerns of a bias towards Beijing in how it has handled the Covid-19 pandemic.
"We regret the decision of the president of the United States to order a halt in funding to the World Health Organisation," WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press conference in Geneva, the day after Trump announced the move.
"When we're divided, the virus exploits the cracks between us," Tedros said, having opened the briefing with a somewhat solemn reading of the WHO constitution's clause on public health as a fundamental right "without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition".
Following Washington's move, Tedros said that the WHO was assessing how its programmes and capacity would be affected, and was not yet able to say exactly how much of a financial shortfall the suspension would create.
The WHO would work with partners "to fill any financial gaps we face, and to ensure our work continues uninterrupted", Tedros said, adding that the organisation's commitment to "serving all the people of the world without fear or favour remains absolute".
Tedros accepted that there "will be lessons for all of us to learn" and said that both WHO member states and independent watchdog bodies would be reviewing its handling of the pandemic "in due course".
"But for now, our focus " my focus " is on stopping this virus and saving lives," said Tedros, who did not say whether he had been in contact with US officials over the decision to halt funds.
By far the WHO's largest donor, the US gave more than US$400 million to the organisation in 2019, according to the US State Department. The suspension of that funding is set to last through a 60- to 90-day review of the body's handling of the outbreak.
In a list of grievances issued on Wednesday, the White House accused the WHO of a "dangerous bias towards the Chinese government", citing its lauding of Beijing's public health measures despite concerns over transparency and its mention of Chinese health authorities' determination in mid-January that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission.
Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China. pic.twitter.com/Fnl5P877VG
" World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) January 14, 2020
The White House also accused the WHO of putting "political correctness over life-saving measures by opposing travel restrictions," referring to calls the organisation made in January and early February on countries not to impose limits on travel or trade, despite its praise of China's own stringent control measures, including those in the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began.
When asked to respond to the White House's charges on Wednesday, Mike Ryan, the WHO's head of health emergencies, said "the idea of having a defence at this point seems rather strange", citing earlier comments by Tedros that a retrospective evaluation would be held into the WHO's response in the future.
But on the WHO's past guidance against travel restrictions, Ryan said that "the imposition of flight restrictions by countries is the sovereign right of any member state".
"WHO does not control the law on this," he said, adding that the body's only function was to "challenge" member states who impose such restrictions to ensure that they have a public health justification for doing so.
Republican allies in Congress, who have in recent weeks joined the White House in slamming the WHO amid intensifying criticism of the US federal government's own pandemic response, have applauded the move to suspend funding to the agency.
But the decision to do so in the midst of a pandemic that has now infected more than 2 million people worldwide and killed more than 125,000 was met with swift condemnation from public health experts, while others noted that the move effectively enlarges China's financial stake in the organisation.
"China has too much influence at the WHO," said Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, on Twitter. "So we pull funding from the WHO. Giving China more influence at the WHO. Smart."
US health officials, meanwhile, have been left struggling to defend a move that could weaken the WHO's capacity to support other countries fighting the coronavirus.
Dr Robert Redfield, who heads the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, twice deflected questions about potential fallout from the move during a Wednesday morning TV appearance.
"The WHO has been a long term and still is a great partner to us," Redfield said under CBS This Morning host Anthony Mason's repeated grilling. "We're going to continue to do all we can together to limit this. Those decisions that are going to be made above related to some of the geopolitical issues, I have to leave to those that really have that expertise."
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