Global health leaders have rounded on Donald Trump, warning that his decision to suspend funding to the World Health Organization is recklessly endangering the chances of ending the pandemic as fast as possible.
Experts said they were dismayed and appalled at the US president’s announcement, which will not only deprive the WHO of the resources it needs to lead the fight, but potentially undermine international collaboration between scientists.
“Halting funding to the WHO is a dangerous, short-sighted and politically motivated decision, with potential public health consequences for all countries in the world, whether they are rich or poor,” said Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and formerly head of UNAIDS, Theguardian reports.
“The Covid-19 pandemic is the greatest global health challenge facing our societies and economies for more than 100 years.
“We need the World Health Organization now more than ever. Its technical expertise, guidance and leadership is supporting countries to implement optimum science-based strategies to prevent and control Covid-19, and will catalyse global action against future health emergencies.”
Trump announced late on Tuesday that US funding would be put on hold for 60 to 90 days pending a review of the WHO’s warnings about the coronavirus and China. He accused the global body of “severely mismanaging and covering up” the threat, even though it declared a public health emergency on 30 January.
On 26 February, during a coronavirus task force press briefing at the White House, Trump said: “I want you to understand something that shocked me when I saw it that – and I spoke with Dr Fauci on this, and I was really amazed, and I think most people are amazed to hear it: the flu, in our country, kills from 25,000 people to 69,000 people a year. That was shocking to me.
“And, so far, if you look at what we have with the 15 people and their recovery, one is – one is pretty sick but hopefully will recover, but the others are in great shape. But think of that: 25,000 to 69,000.”
Mark Suzman, chief executive of the Gates Foundation – the second-largest funder of the WHO after the US – said he would “strongly oppose” any cuts to the funding of the WHO which was critical to the Covid-19 crisis. He also announced a further $150m donation towards the hunt for a vaccine, for which the foundation plans to build factories and therapeutics.
The UK government’s response was lukewarm. Asked about Trump’s decision, Boris Johnson’s spokesman said: “Our position is that the UK has no plans to stop funding the WHO, which has an important role to play in leading the global health response. Coronavirus is a global challenge and it’s essential that countries work together to tackle this shared threat.”
Asked if this meant No 10 was disappointed by the president’s move, the spokesman said: “I can only set out the UK’s position and that is we have no plans to stop funding the WHO.”
At his daily press briefing in Geneva, the director-general of the WHO expressed regret at the US move and warned that the coronavirus would exploit divisions among those trying to fight it.
When the pandemic was over, WHO’s performance against Covid-19 would be scrutinized, said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, but now was not the time. “Covid-19 does not discriminate between rich nations and poor, large nations and small. It does not discriminate between nationalities, ethnicities or ideologies,” he said.
“This is a time for all of us to be united in our common struggle against a common threat. When we are divided, the coronavirus exploits the cracks between.”
The US had been a long-standing and generous friend to WHO and they hoped it would continue to be so, said Tedros. “We regret the decision of the president of the United States to order a halt in funding to WHO.”
He and his colleagues mounted a robust defence of their actions. WHO had not hesitated to warn of the possibility of human-to-human transmission, they said. As early as 11 January, it issued guidance on the dangers of droplets spreading from one person to another, which could transmit the infection to frontline health workers, as happened in Sars, said Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, an American infectious diseases epidemiologist working at WHO.
Experts fear that the work of the WHO in fighting disease and improving health and healthcare systems around the world could be jeopardized. At issue is not just the response to the current pandemic, and major programs such as polio eradication which receives substantial funds from the US, but the collaboration between scientists and doctors at institutions around the world, who will hesitate to pool their knowledge and expertise if they think there may be political consequences.
“The WHO is a place where anxieties and concerns can be discussed without the sense that you are going to be somehow called out,” said David Nabarro, professor of global health at Imperial College London who worked at the highest levels of WHO for many years.
“The challenge for the director-general of WHO is always to maintain the core values of public health even when this goes against some of the political priorities of elected leaders. It is not unusual for there to be some form of conflict. The challenge is to try to create an environment where the opportunity for people to share is maintained and they are not having to look over their shoulders in fear that they are going to fall foul of the political priorities of leaders.”
David Heymann, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, also emphasized WHO’s role as a forum for the world’s scientists and health experts.
“The strength of WHO is that it is able to bring together public health experts from around the world to exchange information, review scientific evidence, and make evidence-based consensus recommendations on disease prevention and control,” he said.
Public health and infectious diseases experts said the WHO needed more funds, not less, to lead the fight against the pandemic and help low and middle-income countries, where it plays a crucial role.
“We are facing the greatest challenge of our lifetime and the WHO is doing an extraordinary job ensuring every country can tackle this virus, protect citizens and save lives,” said Dr Jeremy Farrar, director of research charity the Wellcome Trust. “No other organization can do what they do and we owe them all our respect, thanks, and gratitude. This is a time for solidarity not division.”