US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that a fundamental reform of the World Health Organization (WHO) was needed following its handling of the coronavirus pandemic and that the United States, the WHO’s biggest donor, may never restore funding to the United Nations body.
“We’ve got to take a real hard look at the WHO and what we do coming out of this,” Pompeo said. “We need a structural fix for the WHO.”
Pompeo told Fox News late on Wednesday that there need to be reforms of the WHO to correct its “shortcomings”.
Asked if he was not ruling out a change in leadership of the WHO, Pompeo replied: “Even more than that, it may be the case that the United States can never return to underwriting, having US taxpayer dollars go to the WHO.”
Democrats in the US House of Representatives responded to Pompeo’s fresh attack on the WHO in a letter accusing the Trump administration of trying to “scapegoat” the WHO to distract from its handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
In a letter to Trump, they called for the immediate restoration of US funding, which Trump suspended last week, accusing the WHO of being “China-centric” and of promoting China’s “disinformation” about the outbreak.
“The organisation is not perfect, and we should thoroughly review its early handling of this crisis, particularly its engagement with Chinese authorities,” the lawmakers wrote. “But let’s be clear: mistakes made by the WHO do not justify your halt in funding.”
The WHO has denied the Trump administration’s charges, and China insists it has been transparent and open.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said earlier this month that it was “not the time” to be reducing funds to the WHO or any other organisation fighting the pandemic.
“Now is the time for unity and for the international community to work together in solidarity to stop this virus and its shattering consequences,” Guterres said in a statement.
The US has been the biggest overall donor to the WHO, contributing over $400m in 2019, roughly 15 percent of its budget. Senior US officials last week told Reuters news agency that Washington could redirect these funds to other aid groups.
War of words
Earlier on Wednesday, Pompeo said the US “strongly believed” Beijing had failed to report the outbreak in a timely manner, in breach of WHO rules, and that WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus did not use his ability “to go public” when a member state failed to follow those rules.
Pompeo said the WHO had an obligation to ensure safety standards were observed in virology labs in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began, and its director-general had “enormous authority with respect to nations that do not comply.”
China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom pushed back against Pompeo’s criticism.
“I hear quite a lot of this speculation, this disinformation about China covering up, about China hiding something – this is not true,” Liu Xiaoming said in London on Thursday. “The Chinese government was transparent and very quick to share data.”
The WHO has said the virus likely came from animals and there’s no evidence it was manipulated or produced in a laboratory.
The acting head of the US Agency for International Development said on Wednesday that the US would assess whether the WHO was being run properly and look for alternative partners outside the body.
The possibility of the US ceasing its funding definitively to the global body is contingent upon Trump succeeding in his bid for re-election in the November presidential vote, against the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
The US Congress controls federal spending, and could pass legislation to guarantee funding for the WHO. However, to become law, it would need Trump’s signature or enough support, including from Republicans, to pass override a potential veto.
The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 180,000 people worldwide, including nearly 48,000 in the US, making it the worst-hit country by official statistics, according to a Reuters news agency tally.