GENEVA – Top U.S. allies on Wednesday denounced the planned pullout of the United States from the World Health Organization, with the Italian health minister calling it “wrong” and a political ally of Germany's chancellor warning that the withdrawal could make more room on the world stage for China.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, ratcheted up the Trump administration's months of criticism of the U.N. health agency. The U.S., which is facing criticism for its own handling of the coronavirus, leads the world in confirmed cases and deaths, a situation that President Donald Trump has sought to blame on China.
In his comments, Pompeo repeated the WHO's alleged failures in responding to the virus's emergence in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December and accused the agency of having “a long history of corruption and politicization” in dealing with other diseases.
The new broadsides appeared aimed at refocusing attention during a presidential election year on the shortcomings of WHO and China early in the pandemic that has since reached nearly 11.9 million confirmed cases and a death toll approaching 545,800.
“There is a real focus on the failures that took place around Wuhan and the World Health Organization’s fundamental inability to perform its basic core mission of preventing a global pandemic spread,” Pompeo said.
The United Nations and the U.S. State Department announced Tuesday that Washington had submitted formal notification that the U.S. would withdraw from the WHO within a year. The notice made good on President Donald Trump’s vow in May to terminate U.S. participation in the WHO over its alleged missteps and kowtowing to China.
Trump's presumptive opponent in November's election, former Vice President Joe Biden, has vowed to rescind the decision on his first day in office, if he is elected.
Underscoring the unprecedented nature of the planned U.S. exit, the WHO doesn’t have language in its constitution about how a country could leave: The administration is mostly bound by U.S. legislation that requires a one-year notice and payment of any arrears in full before departure.
“We’ll get it right, but as the president has made very clear, we are not going to underwrite an organization that has historically been incompetent and not performed its fundamental function,” Pompeo said.
Questions were rife about how quickly the U.S. might start backing away from an organization it helped build over decades with both funding and expertise on global health issues as diverse as the fight against polio and smallpox to tobacco use, obesity and sugar consumption.
The Trump administration's latest step to self-isolate - after pulling out of the Paris climate accord, the U.N's human rights body and other international institutions - was bound to affect the WHO through the loss of both U.S. money and medical know-how, experts said.
Critics insist the pullout also will have a negative impact on the U.S. from losing both a voice and an ear in some of the world's top conversations on healthcare.
WHO officials have declined to comment on the withdrawal, saying they have not directly received formal U.S. notification. They previously suggested that the loss of American expertise, such as from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, would hurt as much if not more than the loss of funds from the agency's top contributor.
The U.S. provides WHO with more than $450 million per year and currently owes some $200 million in current and past dues.
Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza called Trump’s pullout decision “serious and wrong.”
“The health crisis has shown that we need a reformed and stronger WHO, not a weaker one,” he said. Italy was the onetime epicenter of the pandemic in the West and relied heavily on WHO’s guidance as it struggled to contain the virus and treat COVID-19 patients.
His German counterpart, Jens Spahn, decried a “setback for international cooperation” on Twitter, writing that more global cooperation, not less, is needed to fight pandemics.
“European states will initiate #WHO reforms,” Spahn tweeted.
Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya said the WHO needs “more autonomy” and the world needs more cooperation to prepare for future pandemics.
“What we need today is more multilateralism and less national sovereignty as a guarantee for protecting our citizens, even if that means that we go against what others have said in other parts of the world,” González Laya told reporters. “Let’s not get carried away by siren songs.”
Juergen Hardt, a foreign policy spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right coalition, said that the U.S. withdrawal damages American and Western strategic interests just as China, a key WHO member state, has been taking a greater role in international institutions.
“As the biggest contributor so far, the U.S. leaves a big vacuum,” Hardt said. “It is foreseeable that China above all will try to fill this vacuum itself. That will further complicate necessary reforms in the organization.”
“It is all the more important that the EU uses its political weight and strengthens its involvement in the WHO as in other international organizations,” he added.
China also criticized the U.S. withdrawal. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian defended WHO on Wednesday and said the Trump administration's move was “another demonstration of the U.S. pursuing unilateralism, withdrawing from groups and breaking contracts.”
Dr. David Heymann, an American who is a former senior director at WHO, said he was “very disappointed” at the U.S. decision. He said he expects Germany and other countries to step forward if the U.S. funding and expertise that has benefited WHO ends.
“As much as it would be terrible if the U.S. leaves WHO and leaves (with) that expertise it has provided throughout the years, the WHO would continue to function,” Heymann said.
Other global health experts warned that no other agency could do what WHO does and that the U.S. departure would severely weaken it — and public health more broadly.
“It is unthinkable and highly irresponsible to withdraw funding from the WHO during one of the greatest health challenges of our lifetime," Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of Britain's Wellcome Trust, said.
"Health leaders in the USA bring tremendous technical expertise, leadership and influence, and their loss from the world stage will have catastrophic implications, leaving the U.S. and global health weaker as a result,” he added.
Lee reported from Washington. Geir Moulson in Berlin, Aritz Parra in Madrid, Nicole Winfield in Rome and Maria Cheng in London contributed to this report.