Trump announces US withdrawal from the World Health Organization
German health minister decries ‘disappointing backlash for international health.’by Brianna Ehley
U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday said he would make good on his threat to withdraw from the World Health Organization — an unprecedented move that could undermine the global coronavirus response and make it more difficult to stamp out other disease threats.
Trump has criticized the United Nations health agency for failing to quickly sound the alarm when the virus emerged and accused it of helping China cover up the threat it posed. "Countless lives have been taken and profound economic hardship has been inflicted all around the globe," Trump said in a brief statement from the White House.
Trump's announcement was quickly panned by health experts, who claimed it would set back global efforts to track and defeat a virus that's already killed more than 360,000 people and sickened nearly 6 million. But the move has been cheered by Trump's base, which is distrustful of international bodies.
The U.S. has relied on its partnership with the WHO and other countries to share crucial data and information, including on treatments and potential vaccine development for the coronavirus, as well as other public health threats including HIV and Ebola. Experts cautioned the nation's public health response to the coronavirus and other emerging diseases would lag without that international cooperation.
“That's a disappointing backlash for International Health,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Twitter. “If WHO shall make any difference for the future it needs reform. And the EU must take a leading role and engage more financially,” he said — adding that would be a priority for Germany’s upcoming presidency of the Council of the EU.
The American Medical Association, the largest physician group in the U.S., urged Trump in the “strongest terms possible" to reverse the decision. Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, the head of the chamber's health committee, warned canceling U.S. membership could disrupt clinical trials for vaccines that will be in high demand around the world.
"Certainly there needs to be a good, hard look at mistakes the World Health Organization might have made in connection with coronavirus, but the time to do that is after the crisis has been dealt with, not in the middle of it," Alexander said.
Trump last month temporarily froze U.S funding to the WHO while his administration was reviewing membership. The U.S has previously contributed over $400 million per year to WHO's $4.8 billion annual budget, more than any other country.
Trump sent a letter earlier this month to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, threatening to make the funding freeze permanent if the organization did not make unspecified "substantive changes" in the next 30 days. Just 11 days later, Trump claimed the reforms had not been made and the U.S. would withdraw from the organization.
WHO officials and the agency’s defenders said a comprehensive review of the agency’s pandemic response should take place, but that U.S. withdrawal would make it harder to muster an international response to the coronavirus and other critical public health work. Critics of Trump’s decision said it would leave the U.S. without any leverage to demand Trump's requested changes while enabling China to have greater influence over the body.
It's not clear how quickly Trump can withdraw from WHO and if he needs congressional approval. House Democrats have complained Trump doesn’t have the authority to cut off WHO funding and accused him of scapegoating the organization to distract from his own administration's stilted response to the pandemic. When Trump announced the temporary freeze last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she would “swiftly” challenge the move but did not elaborate further on what action might be taken.
A senior administration official said Trump is committed to withdrawing from WHO, and U.S. employees detailed at the organization are likely to return. A number of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) employees are typically stationed at the organization.
"None of us in the administration is under the assumption that this is temporary or will be reversed,” the official said. “This is a fundamental repudiation of the WHO and its failed mission."
A CDC spokesperson did not immediately say what impact Trump’s announcement might have on the agency’s relationship with WHO.
Richard Horton, editor in chief of the Lancet, the prominent British medical journal that's been critical of Trump's coronavirus response, called the U.S. withdrawal from WHO “madness and terrifying both at the same time."
“The US government has gone rogue at a time of humanitarian emergency. All leaders must call for renewed international solidarity in support of multilateral cooperation,” he said on Twitter.
Several conservative lawmakers and advocacy groups cheered the move, blasting the international group not only for its treatment of China but also its record of support for access to reproductive health services, including birth control and abortion.
“I am proud that our country will no longer be sending taxpayer dollars to support this radical regime,” said Allan Parker, president of The Justice Foundation, a legal group that opposes abortion rights. “True, life-saving health measures can be funded through other organizations without an abortion agenda.”
Daniel Lippman and Judith Mischke contributed to this report.