LONDON — As countries struggle to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization’s annual meeting is reaching its finale Tuesday having descended into fiery dispute involving the United States, China and the WHO itself.
President Donald Trump teed up the second and final day of the 73rd World Health Assembly by sending an excoriating letter to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who he accused of doing “a very sad job” in attempting to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
In his letter, the president threatened to make permanent a temporary funding freeze on American donations as he accuses it of helping China cover up the outbreak. The U.S. is the WHO’s biggest donor.
This came after an address to the WHO assembly Monday by Trump’s secretary of health and human services, Alex Azar, who said the WHO’s “failure cost many lives and it must not happen again.”
Tedros, the WHO’s director-general, is expected to speak at the event again Tuesday, which may give him an opportunity to respond to Trump’s latest attack.
His organization is also facing pressure from the European Union, which has drafted a resolution at the assembly calling for an independent “evaluation” of the WHO’s response to the pandemic, which has killed more than 300,000 people worldwide.
At least 134 countries from Africa, South America and Asia support the resolution, giving it the necessary support among the WHO’s 194 member states to pass when it is voted on later Tuesday.
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German Health Minister Jens Spahn said the WHO must become “more independent from external interference” and that its role in “leading and coordination” must be strengthened.
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Tedros appeared to bow to this pressure Monday, saying that an investigation would be launched “at the earliest appropriate moment.”
On Monday he had attempted to open the assembly with a more unifying tone, telling health secretaries from around the world that “we have been humbled by this very small microbe.”
China, meanwhile, has thrown its support behind the beleaguered health organization. Contrasting with Trump’s harsh rhetoric and threats to withdraw funding, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced an extra $2 billion in coronavirus relief for the developing world.
Last year, China donated about $86 million to WHO, while the U.S. donated about $450 million.
Xi said he backed an investigation into the pandemic but said it must be led by the WHO “in an objective and impartial manner” and should only start after the virus is brought under control.
That might take years, and many experts say that the WHO should not be involved in any coronavirus inquiry because its own actions — and its relationship with China — must be investigated too.
During a daily briefing Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called Trump’s letter an attempt to “slander” China.
“At present, the COVID-19 pneumonia epidemic is still spreading in the United States and in many parts of the world,” he said. “We urge a small number of U.S. politicians to stop dumping their blame, strengthen cooperation with the international community, and overcome the epidemic together.”
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U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot called China’s funding boost “a token to distract from calls from a growing number of nations demanding accountability for the Chinese government’s failure to meet its obligations.”
Trump accuses the WHO of being “a puppet of China” and helping it cover up aspects of the outbreak in its early stages, something the organization and Beijing has repeatedly denied.
The threat to withdraw U.S. donations has been met with widespread criticism. Even many who agree that the WHO has made mistakes say that a pandemic is not the time to be undermining the only health organization capable of coordinating an international response.
Reuters contributed to this report.
Alexander Smith is a senior reporter for NBC News Digital based in London.