Governments and health experts worldwide have reacted with alarm after President Donald Trump said he was halting the sizable funding the United States sends to the World Health Organization.
They warned that the move could jeopardise global efforts to stop the coronavirus pandemic. The United States is the WHO's largest single donor, contributing between $400 million and $500 million annually to the Geneva-based agency in recent years.
Trump said he was instructing his administration to halt funding for the WHO pending a review of its role "in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus".
The WHO said it regretted the move. Its director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the United States had been "a longstanding and generous friend to WHO and we hope it will continue to be so".
Tedros said WHO's member countries and independent organisations will assess the UN health agency's performance at a later day. But the focus must remain on ending the outbreak.
"This is a time for all of us to be united in our common struggle against a common threat, a dangerous enemy. When we're divided, the virus exploits the cracks between us," he said.
'As dangerous as it sounds'
The European Union said Trump had "no reason" to freeze funding at a time when the WHO was "needed more than ever" to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
"Only by joining forces can we overcome this crisis that knows no borders," said the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
"Placing blame doesn't help," Germany's foreign minister, Heiko Maas, wrote on Twitter. "The virus knows no borders. We must work closely against COVID-19."
Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov warned against politicising and said he believed WHO had "acted effectively" in its handling of the pandemic.
On Twitter, Bill Gates – whose foundation was the second-largest donor to the WHO for its latest two-year budget, contributing over $530 million in 2018 and 2019 – wrote that stopping funding for WHO during a world health crisis "is as dangerous as it sounds."
"Their work is slowing the spread of COVID-19 and if that work is stopped no other organisation can replace them. The world needs WHO now more than ever," Gates wrote.
Worldwide, the pandemic has infected over two million people and killed more than 128,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
The US contribution accounts for around 15 per cent of WHO’s annual budget, but it’s unclear what the precise impact of President Trump's funding cut might be.
Lawrence Gostin, director of O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, said he expected many countries would step up to fill the void left by the United States.
Still, he called Trump’s decision “a horrific event”.
"When the president of the United States criticises the World Health Organization, withdraws US funding in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic: I really think that this is a bridge too far, and it will come back to haunt the United States and haunt it badly," Gostin said in an interview on Euronews Tonight (click on the player above for more).
Trump has repeatedly labelled COVID-19 the "Chinese virus" and criticised WHO for being too lenient on China, where the novel virus first emerged late last year.
Outside experts have also questioned China's reported infections and deaths from the virus, calling them way too low and unreliable.
An investigation by The Associated Press has found that six days of delays between the time Chinese officials knew about the threat posed by the virus and the time they warned the public had allowed the outbreak to turn into an enormous public health disaster.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he sympathised with some of Trump's criticisms of WHO and China, but that Australia would continue to fund the WHO.
”We work closely with them so that we're not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater here,'' Morrison told Perth Radio 6PR. ”But they're also not immune from criticism.''