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Research world rallies round WHO after Trump pulls funding

Image: Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

US president accuses global health agency of ‘mismanaging’ the coronavirus pandemic

Researchers have come out in strong support of the World Health Organization, after Donald Trump followed through on his threat to stop funding the agency at the centre of the global Covid-19 response.

At a White House press conference on 14 April, the US president accused the WHO of “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus” and said it “must be held accountable”.

Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the WHO was needed now more than ever.

“Halting funding to the WHO is a dangerous, short-sighted and politically motivated decision, with potential public health consequences for all countries in the world, whether they are rich or poor,” he said.

Trump had initially threatened to withhold funding on 7 April, drawing sharp rebukes and warnings over the consequences from researchers and other experts. The US is due to have paid $58 million in ‘assessed contributions’ to the WHO for 2020, although it is currently $99m in arrears from late payments for 2019 and 2020. The country regularly contributes more under a separate scheme for voluntary payments.

David Heymann, who was previously the WHO’s assistant director-general for health security and environment, told journalists on the 8 April that Trump’s threat would be “disastrous” if carried out, and that the agency “works on a shoestring budget”.

And the agency’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said then that he didn’t think it was necessary to address Trump’s accusations directly, but that politicising the coronavirus pandemic will lead to “many more body bags” and is like “playing with fire”.

In his latest broadside at the UN agency, Trump said there would be a review of the WHO’s actions during the coronavirus outbreak lasting 60 to 90 days, after which a decision would be made on whether the US resumes funding.

Leading global health figures have been quick to express their solidarity with the agency.

“The WHO plays a critical role and needs more resources, not less, if we’re to have the best chance of bringing this pandemic to an end,” said Jeremy Farrar, director of the medical research charity the Wellcome Trust.

The WHO has been approached for comment.