Image via Shutterstock Donald Trump
Image via Shutterstock

“Withdrawing U.S. membership could, among other things, interfere with clinical trials that are essential to the development of vaccines,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

While most of the nation was focused on the protests against the police killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, President Trump on Friday announced the United States would no longer provide funding to the World Health Organization and instead planned to pull out of the agency—a decision quickly criticized by a leading Republican senator. 

Trump justified the planned withdrawal by accusing the WHO of protecting China as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the world and of failing to enact reforms that he claimed would have helped the agency contain the virus.

“We will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization and redirecting those funds to other worldwide and deserving urgent global public health needs,” Trump said during a Rose Garden press conference. “The world needs answers from China on the virus.”

The U.S. has provided about 15% of the WHO’s total funding over the current two-year budget period. 

It’s unclear whether Trump can unilaterally withdraw funding for the WHO without congressional approval, and some legal experts have argued Trump lacks the power to do so without backing from Congress. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in April that any effort to defund the WHO would be “swiftly challenged.” 

Trump’s decision was met with swift criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike, including Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who issued a rare rebuke of the president.

“I disagree with the president’s decision,” Alexander said in a statement. “Withdrawing U.S. membership could, among other things, interfere with clinical trials that are essential to the development of vaccines, which citizens of the United States as well as others in the world need. And withdrawing could make it harder to work with other countries to stop viruses before they get to the United States.”

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Alexander said that while it was necessary to analyze what mistakes the WHO might have made during the pandemic, the time to do so was “after the crisis has been dealt with, not in the middle of it.”

The WHO has also said it is committed to reviewing its response after the worst of the pandemic has passed, and Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in April that any such “postmortem” should wait until the public health crisis was over. Alexander’s fears were also echoed by health experts, who said Trump’s decision could worsen an already devastating public health crisis, given the WHO’s role in leading the worldwide effort to combat COVID-19. 

“Severing ties with the World Health Organization (WHO) serves no logical purpose and makes finding a way out of this public health crisis dramatically more challenging,” Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association, said in a statement. “This senseless action will have significant, harmful repercussions now and far beyond this perilous moment, particularly as the WHO is leading worldwide vaccine development and drug trials to combat the pandemic.”

Lawrence Gostin, the faculty director at Georgetown’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, called Trump’s decision “foolish and arrogant” and “would be one of the most momentous decisions of modern history.”

Others have pointed out that Trump’s decision to defund the WHO is just the latest example of his attempts to shift blame from his own administration’s much-criticized response to the pandemic. Instead of taking responsibility, Trump has sought to blame state and local leaders, former President Obama, and now the WHO and China. 

During his statements on Friday, Trump claimed, without evidence, that China pressured WHO to mislead the rest of the world about the virus.

“The world is now suffering as a result of the malfeasance of the Chinese government,” Trump said. “China’s coverup of the [coronavirus] allowed the disease to spread all over the world, instigating a global pandemic that has cost more than 100,000 American lives.”

China hit back at Trump on Monday, with the nation’s foreign ministry saying his decision revealed America’ was a “habitual quitter.”

Meanwhile, the WHO said it did not want the collaboration with the U.S. to end. 

“The U.S. government and people’s contribution and generosity towards global health over many decades has been immense, and it has made a great difference in public health all around the world,” the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom said in his daily briefing. “It is WHO’s wish for this collaboration to continue.”