“We regret the decision of the President of the United States to order a halt in funding to the World Health Organization,” Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a news conference Wednesday in Geneva.
Trump’s decision comes amid the worst global pandemic in decades and as he tries deflecting criticism of his administration’s handling of the virus in the United States.
Tedros said Wednesday that the WHO is assessing exactly how its programs will be affected by the loss of funding from the US.
“We will do the assessment and then announce it officially,” Tedros said during the briefing, adding that the international agency “will work with our partners to fill any financial gaps we face and to ensure our work continues uninterrupted.”
He said that the WHO will continue working with other countries and argued that unity is key to fighting the coronavirus.
“WHO is grateful to the many nations, organizations and individuals who have expressed their support and commitment to WHO in recent days, including their financial commitment,” Tedros said. “We welcome this demonstration of global solidarity because solidarity is the rule of the game to defeat Covid-19. WHO is getting on with the job.”
In his announcement Tuesday, Trump criticized the WHO for its response to the coronavirus and alluded to alleged increase in Chinese influence at the organization, arguing that the virus could have been better contained had the WHO “done its job to get medical experts into China” and assess the situation.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was more blunt, claiming that the WHO “declined to call this a pandemic for an awfully long time because frankly the Chinese Communist Party didn’t want that to happen.”
WHO has also been criticized for a January 14 tweet noting that a preliminary investigation by Chinese authorities had found “no clear evidence” of human-to-human transmission of the coronavirus.
WHO officials in Wednesday’s news conference defended their early actions when it came to fighting the coronavirus, noting that much was unknown about the virus back in January.
“When WHO issued its first guidance to countries, it was extremely clear that respiratory precautions should be taken in dealing with patients with this disease, that labs needed to be careful in terms of their precautions and taking samples, because there was a risk that the disease could spread from person to person in those environments,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO health emergencies program.
Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, a WHO infectious diseases epidemiologist, said that she recently reviewed the WHO’s January 14 press conference, when there were 41 confirmed cases worldwide.
“All of our guidance that was out before we did that press conference was about limiting exposure to people and to prevent transmission, particularly in health care settings,” Van Kerkhove said, noting that WHO’s guidance issued on January 10 and 11 was about respiratory droplets and contact protection.
Ryan said WHO alerted the world to the new disease on January 5, allowing health systems around the world, including the US, to begin activating their incident management systems that week.
“In the initial reports, in which there were no mention of human to human transmission, was a cluster of atypical pneumonia or pneumonia of unknown origin,” he said.
Ryan argued that it was “remarkable” that a cluster of cases was detected in Wuhan, China, because there are “millions and millions of cases of atypical pneumonia around the world” each year and “sometimes it’s very difficult to pick out a signal of a cluster of cases” in the middle of flu season.
Ryan said WHO is looking forward to receiving its “after-action review,” an assessment of the agency’s handling of the coronavirus.
“I am very anxious for those after-action reviews to come, because we do them for every outbreak response, and I’ll be delighted with our teams and look forward to that engagement to look and see where we can learn to do better, where we can improve our response,” he said.