Bill Gates slams Trump move to cut WHO funding over coronavirus

Under fire over his response to the coronavirus epidemic, President Donald Trump has launched a diversionary attack, withdrawing US funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) at a critical point in the coronavirus pandemic.

The US administration is pulling some $400 million in annual funding from the WHO, which accounts for 15% of its total budget, claiming that the UN agency has mismanaged and covered up the spread of COVID-19.

A decision on whether the US resumes funding will be made after the review, which Trump said would last between two and three months.

The move has been condemned in some quarters as an attempt to side-track reporters who are levelling criticism at the US administration’s response to the pandemic, and Trump’s dismissive attitude to the threat in the early stages of the outbreak.

It also raises concerns that lower-income areas of the world with fewer healthcare resources will suffer most, as they rely more heavily on the WHO for regulatory support and public health expertise, and could impact the roll-out of drugs and vaccines to these countries.

In turn, that could elevate the risk of second and subsequent waves of infection once lockdown measures in the US are relaxed.

Bill Gates – whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the second-largest funder of the WHO – tweeted: “Halting funding for the World Health Organization 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 organization can replace them. The world needs @WHO now more than ever.”

The Foundation has also pledged to increase its funding by $150 million to help offset the US’s decision to pull out.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also insisted it was not the time for the WHO to operate with fewer resources. In a statement, he said: “now is the time for unity and for the international community to work together in solidarity to stop this virus and its shattering consequences.”

Trump has repeatedly accused the WHO of failing to properly assess the outbreak when it first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and not challenging “China’s lack of transparency” over the virus.

He told reporters yesterday that had the WHO acted differently, the outbreak “could have been contained at its source with very little death.”

There are certainly areas in which the WHO’s response can be questioned, although there are strong arguments to say that should take place once the crisis has abated, not at its height.

The agency’s acceptance of China’s position that there had been no human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in January has been widely criticised, although it’s worth noting it revised that assessment within a week.

There has also been confused messaging on the value of face masks, and WHO has been accused of tardiness in declaring a public health emergency and advocating travel bans.

Meanwhile, it has also been accused of lending support for China re-opening “wet markets” where animals are slaughtered – and the Wuhan outbreak first emerged – but is actually on record as advising they should remain closed.

US health care advocacy group Protect Our Care said the suspension of funding to the WHO is “nothing more than a transparent attempt by President Trump to distract from his history downplaying the severity of the coronavirus crisis and his administration’s failure to prepare our nation.”

It goes on: “To be sure, the [WHO] is not without fault but it is beyond irresponsible to cut its funding at the height of a global pandemic. This move will undoubtedly make Americans less safe.”

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