President Trump's new ultimatum deepens division with World Health Organization
A World Health Organization meeting to rally an international response to the coronavirus pandemic has instead amplified the discord between the United States and China, leaving the U.N. agency caught in the middle and struggling to lead amid the crisis.
The World Health Assembly - an annual WHO meeting that this year transformed into a virtual strategy session for the coronavirus fight - was quickly overshadowed by President Donald Trump's latest ultimatum in his widening battles with Beijing and the U.N. health organization.
Trump threatened to permanently halt U.S. funding to the WHO and "reconsider" the country's membership in the U.N. body if it does not "commit to major substantive improvements" within the next 30 days.
In a letter to the WHO posted in a late-night tweet Monday, Trump elaborated on assertions he has been making since April, when he suspended U.S. payments to the WHO for 60 days over what he called its "China-centric" coronavirus response.
The four-page letter came the same day as Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the assembly by video link. Xi skimmed over China's handling of the initial outbreak late last year and emphasized its commitment to the global pandemic fight, pledging $2 billion.
The standoff between Trump and Xi took attention away from much of the other news from the assembly, including the WHO agreeing to hold an inquiry into the global response to the coronavirus pandemic.
"The assembly has turned into a political circus," said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University who also provides technical assistance to the Geneva-based WHO.
"To see this unfolding in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic is deeply problematic," he added.
Trump's letter is clear: Either the WHO make changes or the United States walks.
But the president did not specify what changes were needed for him to restore U.S. funding, the WHO's largest single source of funding. Trump also said discussions between the United States and the agency's leaders were already underway, but he gave no details.
The WHO said only that it was "considering the contents of the letter," it said in a statement.
Trump's central argument is that the WHO's handling of the crisis cost lives by accepting China's assessments of the spread and threat in the early weeks.
"It is clear the repeated missteps by you and your organization in responding to the pandemic have been extremely costly for the world," Trump wrote.
The timeline he lays out, however, mixes concerns and inaccuracies. It also excludes information about what Trump knew and said at the time.
For instance, many governments, researchers and public health experts were baffled that the WHO did not express more skepticism about China's claims, in mid-January, that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission.
The letter restated some of these concerns and added new ones - including some that do not hold up to scrutiny.
Trump's first claim, for instance, is that the WHO "ignored credible reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December 2019 or even earlier." He cites as evidence information published by the Lancet.
But Richard Horton, chief editor of the medical journal, said Tuesday that the Lancet did not publish its first reports on the coronavirus until late January.
The letter also criticizes the WHO for praising China's "transparency" despite evidence that Chinese officials silenced whistleblowers and undercounted cases.