President Donald Trump threatened to freeze funding for the World Health Organization as he accused the body of withholding information about coronavirus in Wuhan and being “wrong” about the outbreak in China.
Mr Trump said the WHO had “missed the call” when it came to the early detection of the virus in Wuhan and called the organisation very “China-centric”. He also blasted WHO for what he said was criticism of his decision in January to ban flights from China to the US.
“They could have called it months earlier,” Mr Trump said at a White House press briefing on Tuesday. “They would have known and they should have done. And they probably did know, so we’ll be looking into that very carefully. And we’re going to put a hold on money sent to the WHO.”
Mr Trump said he would put a “very powerful hold” on the funding. But when pressed on whether the US should withhold funds during the pandemic, the president softened his threat — one of the many examples of the president contradicting himself during the same press conference.
“I’m not saying I’m going to do it, but we’ll have a look,” Mr Trump said. “You know what, they called it wrong. And if you look back over the years . . . everything seems to be very biased toward China. It’s not right.”
According to the WHO, the US, which is its biggest contributor, provided $58m to the organisation this year, or double the Chinese contribution.
On Thursday, China’s foreign ministry said Mr Trump’s threat to freeze funding “created a negative impact on global anti-epidemic co-operation efforts”. Zhao Lijian, a foreign ministry spokesman, added: “China will as always support resolutely the work of the WHO and support the WHO to continue playing the leading role in the global fight against the epidemic.”
Mr Trump’s criticism reignited a debate about blame for the spread of the disease, which has been contracted by 1.43m people around the world and caused 82,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. The number of US cases has soared to 399,000, with almost 13,000 fatalities.
The WHO in mid-January said there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission, even after one of its experts said the opposite. Days later, it pointed to “some limited” direct transmission among humans, as China also confirmed the first cases of human-to-human transmission.
Later in January the WHO described the virus as a global emergency, but recommended that nations keep borders open to reduce the number of people crossing borders in irregular ways that would prevent health checks. Later that day Mr Trump banned most travel from China.
Mr Trump has been criticised for not taking the virus seriously early on, and particularly for saying it would disappear “like a miracle”. Each time he has come under attack, he has touted his move to ban flights from China, and sometimes his later step to expand restrictions to travel from Europe.
“They seem to come down the side of China,” said Mr Trump, who claimed that the WHO missed the early signs despite sending a team to Wuhan. “They didn’t see what was going on in Wuhan . . . How do you not see it?”
While Mr Trump has previously criticised the WHO, his attack on Tuesday took the criticism to a much higher level. It came just weeks after the US president generally stopped referring to the disease as the “China virus” following a phone call with Chinese president Xi Jinping.
China has sent ventilators and other badly needed medical equipment to the US to help states deal with the mounting health crisis.