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Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus


‘We will have many body bags.’ WHO chief responds to Trump’s criticisms

Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

The head of the World Health Organization today gave an impassioned but indirect rejoinder to recent comments from U.S. President Donald Trump criticizing WHO’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and suggesting he would try to cut its U.S. funding.

“Please quarantine politicizing COVID,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in response to a question from ScienceInsider about Trump’s comments. “We will have many body bags in front of us if we don’t behave.”

Tedros also indirectly addressed Trump’s criticisms of China’s early handling of the pandemic and claims that WHO is too accommodating to the Chinese government. “The United States and China should come together and fight this dangerous enemy,” he said, urging politicians not to exploit global political differences. “It’s like playing with fire,” he said. “When there are cracks at national level and global level that’s when the virus succeeds. For God’s sake, we have lost more than 60,000 citizens of the world.”

WHO will be reviewing its strengths and weaknesses in its pandemic response, Tedros added. He stressed there were many unknowns when the outbreak surfaced—and that many unknowns remain. “We shouldn’t waste time pointing fingers,” he said. “Unity is the only option to defeat this virus. If you don’t believe in unity and don’t do unity, please prepare for the worst to come.”

Tedros’s remarks come 1 day after Trump, speaking at a White House Coronavirus Taskforce press conference, threatened to cut funding to WHO. “We’re going to put a very powerful hold on it,” Trump said. When later questioned by a journalist, Trump backpedaled and insisted that he didn’t say this. “I said we’re going to look at it, we’re going to investigate it,” he said.

Trump accused WHO of being “very China-centric,” charging that it “criticized and disagreed with my travel ban at the time I did it, and they were wrong.” He also asserted that WHO did not promptly report the outbreak when it surfaced in China. “They called it wrong,” Trump said. “They missed the call. They could’ve called it months earlier. They would have known, and they should have known and they probably did know.” (In fact, Trump’s assertion about the timeline is not correct, and one of his top scientific advisors on the White House coronavirus task force has tried to correct this point.)

The U.S. government provides nearly 15% of WHO’s $5.6 billion budget for 2018 and 2019: $237 million is assessed and $656 million is voluntary. 

It is generally difficult, but not impossible, for a president to unilaterally withhold money that Congress has already appropriated for a specific purpose, such as funding WHO. But Rebecca Katz of Georgetown University, a health and security specialist who tracks funding of global health, says Trump could try to withhold future payments. Matthew Kavanagh, another global health expert at Georgetown, says the portion of the funding the United States contributes voluntarily could be particularly vulnerable. 

Kavanagh strongly objects to Trump’s pronouncements yesterday. “Threats to cut WHO off are dangerous and disingenuous,” he says. “The world urgently needs stronger global health cooperation, not weaker, and the administration knows that U.S. failures to prepare for COVID-19 are not the fault of the WHO.”