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WHO members agree to coronavirus response probe

May 19, 2020

Member states have adopted a resolution to investigate the global handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The European Union backed the move, but defended the WHO from President Trump's threats to withdraw US funding.

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks at the 73rd World Health Assembly (WHA) at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, May 18, 2020.
Image: picture-alliance/Photoshot/WHO

The World Health Assembly has adopted a resolution to allow an investigation of the global response to the coronavirus pandemic. The resolution faced no objections from the assembly's 194 member states.

The European Union was among countries and bodies to sponsor the motion at the World Health Organization's (WHO) annual conference, urging an "impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation" of the international response to the pandemic.

Earlier Tuesday, the EU also voiced support for the WHO after President Donald Trump threatened to cut US funding of the global agency.

"This is the time for solidarity, not the time for finger-pointing or for undermining multilateral cooperation," European foreign affairs spokeswoman Virginie Battu-Henriksson told reporters on the second day of the World Health Assembly.

The resolution did not immediately adopt a time frame for the investigation, but WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the assembly on Monday he would welcome an independent evaluation at the "earliest appropriate moment."

WHO hails initiative, ignores Trump

The coronavirus pandemic "threatens to tear at the fabric of international cooperation," but the WHO will continue to lead the global fight against it, said Tedros.

Speaking at the WHA summit on Tuesday, he thanked "the many member states who have expressed their support and solidarity" to the organization. He did not directly address Trump's ultimatum to halt funding if the organization did not reform within 30 days.

Tedros greeted the EU resolution that calls for independent evaluation of the global response, which would also include the WHO.

"We want accountability more than anyone," he said.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also mentioned the investigation, albeit stressing that the goal should be to identify improvements, not to lay blame. 

"Together, we stress the central role of the World Health Organization in international health management," Maas said in a statement. "It is important to strengthen the WHO, to support it, and to prepare it even better for the future. The resolution underlines that in the current situation acute crisis management is the priority. In a subsequent step, the WHO is planning an independent evaluation of the global response to COVID-19."

Trump blames WHO, China

Trump, who had already suspended funding of the WHO, published a letter on Monday in which he called the WHO a "puppet of China" and demanded "major substantive improvements in the next 30 days."

Chancellor Angela Merkel was among the European leaders who expressed their support for the WHO at the assembly ahead of Trump's comments, saying "the WHO is the legitimate global institution which brings everything together."

The investigation will not specifically look into the WHO, but at the global response from all governments and international bodies.

Prior to the US funding freeze, Washington was the biggest single donor to the WHO. Should the Trump administration go ahead with the permanent freeze, China may fill part of the gap.

Read more: Facing COVID-19, World Health Organization in crisis mode

US objects to wording on abortion, patents

The US also rejected the language used in a World Health Organization resolution on the pandemic, although it did not block the document from being adopted at the summit.

Specifically, Washington said it "dissociates" from sections which guarantees reproductive and sexual health care during the pandemic. It also rejected the segment saying that poorer countries can defy intellectual property rules if necessary in order to obtain emergency medicine.

"The United States believes in legal protections for the unborn, and rejects any interpretation... to require any state party to provide access to abortion," US diplomats said. 

They also said sections on waiving intellectual rights send "the wrong message to innovators who will be essential to the solution the whole world needs."

Russia accuses Trump of 'unsubstantiated accusations'

A top Russian official expressed support for the WHO and China on Monday night, criticizing Trump's threat.

"Russia is against any such fabricated investigations and unsubstantiated accusations. We are categorically against them," Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, told the Russian news agency Interfax.

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told DW that Trump's threat to withdraw funding was "irresponsible" and reflects the "chaotic" nature of his presidency.

"For the president of the United States to give a blanket smear that the WHO is acting as a 'puppet' simply doesn't do it justice," said Rudd, who is the president of the Asia Society Policy Institute. "Trump is very quick to criticize others, while most of us would agree his own domestic policies are chaotic."

However, Rudd acknowledged that both the WHO and China "have legitimate questions to answer" and said China was "not off the hook."

ed/msh (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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