The Trump administration officially announced on Tuesday that the United States would be withdrawing from the World Health Organization (WHO), giving formal notice to the United Nations secretary-general about its intention to do so.
The announced departure from the international agency comes after Trump has threatened for several months to cut off funding to the WHO, as well as leaving the organization altogether, over his belief that the UN agency has promoted a pro-China bias. Despite lacking evidence to back its claims, the White House has alleged that the WHO aided Beijing in covering up the initial response to coronavirus at the start of the disease’s spread in Wuhan late last year.
In making these claims against the WHO, Trump claimed they were backed up by supposed reports from December 2019 in the medical journal The Lancet, which he said had shown the WHO and China were aware of the destructive possibilities of COVID-19 at that time. Those claims, however, were immediately repudiated by The Lancet, which pointed out that it had “published no report in December, 2019, referring to a virus or outbreak in Wuhan or anywhere else in China.”
“The first reports the journal published were on January 24, 2020,” The Lancet added.
Other allegations by the Trump administration of misdeeds on the part of the WHO have been similarly disputed by fact-checking organizations. Several health experts do not believe the president’s claims are legitimate, and view them more as a means to deflect criticisms from his own gross mishandling of the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S.
Removal of membership from the WHO requires a year’s notice, which means the U.S. will remain within the organization until at least July 6, 2021. Because of the presidential election that’s set to occur later this fall, it’s possible that the decision made by the Trump administration this week could be reversed by next summer.
If Trump remains president, an exit by the U.S. from the WHO will go through as planned. His main opponent in the race, meanwhile, Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden, has indicated on his campaign webpage his commitment to the WHO and its policies in the global fight against the spread of coronavirus, implying that a partnership with the organization would continue if he won the election.
Several health experts have warned that Trump’s decision to remove the U.S. from the WHO would be a mistake, particularly during a pandemic crisis.
“The United States helped create the World Health Organization,” Tom Frieden, former director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said to NPR in May. And we’re turning our back on it — we’re turning our back on the world. That makes us less safe, it makes the world less safe.”
Nancy Cox, a former CDC virologist who spent 22 years leading the agency’s partnership with the WHO on influenza surveillance, expressed dismay last month about the idea as well.
“To do this in the middle of a pandemic is breathtakingly dangerous,” Cox said to ProPublica. “So I worry a lot about what’s going to happen to so many of the programs at WHO that were strongly supported financially and through expertise and consultation with the U.S. I just think it could be really bad.”