Global health experts tell Congress Trump’s decision to cut ties with WHO is ‘tragic,’ ‘deeply unwise’

Mark Dybul testifies before a Senate Appropriations State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee hearing in Dirksen Building on global health problems, May 6, 2015.

Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call

President Donald Trump‘s decision to cut ties with the World Health Organization due to their response to the coronavirus pandemic will ultimately hurt U.S. interests and empower international rivals, four global health experts testified in the Senate on Tuesday.

Trump announced in late May that the U.S. would withdraw from the United Nations health agency after weeks of threats to cut funding and allegations of favoritism toward China. The WHO has defended its response to the pandemic, saying it warned members states of the threat the virus presented to the world and has provided technical support to countries throughout.

Democratic lawmakers have previously argued that the president does not have the authority to withdraw the U.S. or its funding from the WHO without Congressional action. A panel of health experts testifying on Covid-19 and international pandemic preparedness acknowledged the WHO’s shortcomings, but decried the president’s decision as harmful to U.S. interests.

‘Better, but not perfect’

“WHO’s response has been imperfect, but that does not mean it is in our interest, or the world’s interest, for the U.S. to leave WHO,” Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said at a hearing before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on Tuesday. “The global pandemic is just getting started and the single biggest obligation that I believe we all have is to protect the lives and well being of the American people and the people around the globe. And this is why I believe that the administration’s decision to withdraw from WHO is so deeply unwise.”

Jha, who described himself as “one of WHO’s harshest critics” for the agency’s mishandling of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, added that “WHO’s response to Covid-19 has been better, but not perfect.” He said his biggest criticism of the WHO’s response to Covid-19 is that the agency has excessively praised China, which “is not worthy of praise.”

The WHO is irreplaceable in many parts of the world and has a unique relationship with many ministries of health, particularly in developing countries, Jha said.

“During this pandemic when we have many, many difficult months ahead of us, walking away from WHO, I believe, makes controlling the virus globally harder and makes it harder to manage the virus here at home,” he said. “Walking away from WHO leaves us without a voice at the table to better manage the disease globally.”

U.S. credibility

With or without the WHO, the U.S. will need to forge a path forward for international pandemic preparedness response, former director of the U.S. Agency for International Development Jeremy Konyndyk told lawmakers. A virus with the potential to spark a pandemic will come again, he said, and countries need to invest in global surveillance now.

“It is impossible to envision the U.S. succeeding in this kind of ambitious pandemic preparedness agenda without the full engagement of the World Health Organization and frankly it’s hard to envision the rest of the world working together with us on this effort if they view it as a U.S. alternative or competitor rather than a complement and supporter or partner to the World Health Organization,” he said. “Withdrawing the U.S. from the World Health Organization will be tragic and it is entirely unjustified.”

The U.S. is poorly positioned to lead any kind of competing organization to the WHO, Konyndyk added, considering the country’s response to the pandemic.

The U.S. has reported more cases and more deaths than any other country in the world. While many countries in Europe and Asia have managed to drive spread of the virus down to a level at which it can be contained, the U.S. “has way too much virus” for that, Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Monday.

“It is a bit painful to say this, but I think we also have to acknowledge that the U.S.’s credibility to lead a global coalition on pandemic preparedness will really hinge on our ability to contain our domestic outbreak here at home,” Konyndyk said. “Our credibility globally starts with our competence within our own borders.”

‘China and Russia’

If the U.S. pulls out of the WHO, it risks ceding influence to the country’s rivals, said Dr. Mark Dybul, the co-director of the Center for Global Health Practice at Georgetown University Medical Center and former head of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

“The US can best drive reform when we are fully engaged,” he said. “You can’t place a bet if you’re not at the table and if we are not at the table others are ready to step in and take our place, including China and Russia.”

He pointed to the emergence of a new virus in China that White House health adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said has pandemic potential as an example of why global coordination to stop outbreaks is crucial. While the WHO lacks enforcement capacity among other weaknesses, he said it is “a necessary although not sufficient player.”

“In my view, WHO has done a good job under the circumstances and vastly improved from Ebola,” he said of the WHO’s response to Covid-19.

Global fire department

The bottom line is there is no replacement for the WHO, said former U.S. Ambassador Jimmy Kolker, who was an assistant secretary for global health affairs under  the Obama administration.

“You asked, Mr. Chairman, who’s the fire department, who responds when there’s an outbreak that threatens to become an epidemic,” he said, addressing Senator James Risch, a Republican from Idaho. “My reply to that question is there is no alternative to WHO.”

Early in the outbreak, the WHO’s health emergencies program distributed diagnostic tests for the virus to countries that requested it, he said. At the same time, the CDC distributed diagnostic tests to state officials that later proved inaccurate. 

“The World Health Organization was the only organization that could get Chinese approval for independent scientists to enter China and WHO, as they always would, included American government experts in their delegation,” he said.

Kolker added that he would support U.S. reform of its international pandemic preparedness programs and might support the CDC or other U.S. agencies taking a more active role, “but WHO has to be at the core.”

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