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WHO members back evaluation of virus response

It comes after Donald Trump criticised the agency and its relationship with China, where the coronavirus outbreak erupted.


Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organisation (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organisation (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organisation (Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP)

Many World Health Organisation (WHO) member states have rallied around the UN health agency after Donald Trump listed concerns and criticism about the body to its director-general.

The second and final day of the WHO’s annual assembly produced a unanimous resolution that backs cooperation to find tools to address Covid-19 and inspect the world’s response to it, among other things.

World leaders like the presidents of the European Commission and Colombia beamed in by video conference, hours after US president Donald Trump made public his letter sent on Monday to WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus criticising “repeated missteps” of the agency as “very costly for the world”.

Dr Tedros appeared determined to rise above the new bout of US criticism, saying “WHO’s focus now is fighting the pandemic with every tool at our disposal. Our focus is on saving lives. At the end of the day, what matters is life”.

“Dark and difficult days may lie ahead but guided by science together, we will overcome,” Dr Tedros said. “Let hope be the antidote to fear.”

The European Union, the resolution’s chief architect, urged countries to support WHO in the wake of Mr Trump’s continued attacks.

European Commission spokeswoman Virginie Battu-Henriksson said now was not “the time for finger-pointing or undermining multilateral cooperation”.

The resolution, among other things, calls on Dr Tedros to initiate “at the earliest appropriate moment … an impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” that would “review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to Covid-19″.

It was not immediately clear how, when or by whom that evaluation will be conducted.

China, where the outbreak emerged, expressed support for such a review, but said it should wait until after the pandemic is over.

While airing a few reservations, the US nevertheless did not oppose the resolution.

The resolution also pointed to the “role of extensive immunization against Covid-19 as a global public good” and called for participants to “work collaboratively” to produce “safe, effective, quality, affordable diagnostics, therapeutics, medicines and vaccines” for the Covid-19 response.

“This is the time for science and solidarity. This is the time for all humanity to rally around a common cause,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said. “And you can count on Europe to always play for the team.”

German foreign minister Heiko Maas said “together we stress the central role of the World Health Organisation in international health management” and called for it to be strengthened.

Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez said simply: “I support WHO and Dr Tedros so that they lead and build on these lessons learned, so that they can help us to be better prepared for future challenges.”

Health experts said Mr Trump’s increasing attacks on WHO for its handling of the coronavirus demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of the UN agency’s role.

In his letter, Mr Trump threatened to permanently cut US funding to WHO unless the agency commits to “substantive improvements” in the next 30 days.

“I cannot allow American taxpayer dollars to continue to finance an organization that, in its present state, is so clearly not serving America’s interests,” he wrote.

WHO’s focus now is fighting the pandemic with every tool at our disposal. Our focus is on saving lives.WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

The US is the WHO’s biggest donor, providing about 450 million dollars (£367 million) a year.

Devi Sridhar, a professor of global health at the University of Edinburgh, said: “China and the US are fighting it out like divorced parents while WHO is the child caught in the middle, trying not to pick sides.

“President Trump doesn’t understand what the WHO can and cannot do,” she said, explaining that it sets international standards and is driven by its member countries.

“If he thinks they need more power, then member states should agree and delegate it more.”

Michael Head, a senior research fellow at the University of Southampton, said much of what Mr Trump was demanding was beyond WHO’s intended scope. He said that WHO provides expert guidance, “not enforcement by law”.

Mr Trump has repeatedly accused WHO of being unduly influenced by China, and wrote that the agency has been “curiously insistent” on praising the country’s “alleged transparency”.

WHO acknowledged receipt of Mr Trump’s missive and said it was “considering the contents of the letter”.

The agency has previously emphasised that it declared a global health emergency on January 30, when there were fewer than 100 cases of coronavirus outside of China.

When that declaration was made, Dr Tedros said China was setting a new standard for outbreak response.

He said the world owed China gratitude for the way it bought other nations time to plan, with the extraordinary measures it was taking to contain the virus.