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2 perspectives on the Trump administration’s clash with WHO

The World Health Organization held a rare emergency meeting Thursday to discuss the ongoing global health crisis -- and an escalating diplomatic battle with the U.S., its largest funder. President Trump has frozen contributions to WHO, blaming it for echoing China in its early response to COVID-19. Nick Schifrin talks to Duke University’s Dr. Michael Merson and Stanford University’s Lanhee Chen.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, the World Health Organization hosted an emergency meeting. And the Trump administration once again blamed the WHO for not being forthcoming about COVID-19.

    That comes as the president also said today that he believes — without offering evidence — that the virus originated in a Chinese laboratory, while the U.S. intelligence community said today that it had made no judgment on that score.

    President Trump has frozen U.S. contributions to the WHO. The U.S. has been the largest funder, paying more than 14 percent of the WHO's budget, double the next largest individual country.

    But, as Nick Schifrin reports, the administration blamed the WHO for echoing China, and the WHO says it's just doing its job.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, in Geneva, the WHO's director general led a rare emergency committee meeting to confront emergencies that are medical and diplomat.

  • Secretary Mike Pompeo:

    We shouldn't pretend that because some organization has health in its title that it's actually capable of delivering the outcomes that we need.

  • President Donald Trump:

    They're literally a pipe organ for China. That's the way I view it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The administration argues the WHO failed to warn the world about COVID-19 and failed to question China's incorrect initial assessments of no human-to-human transmission.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We give $500 million. We have, over the years, from 400 to 500, for a long time, for many years. And China is giving $38 million. And yet they seem to work for China.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    WHO Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus has pushed back, arguing he has to accept country's assessments, and the organization did its job.

  • Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus:

    From the beginning, WHO has acted quickly and decisively to respond and to warn the world. We sounded the alarm early, and we sounded it often.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Here's the U.S. criticism: Four times in early January, the WHO released statements and tweets repeating China's incorrect claims and praising China's response, despite an early cover-up in Wuhan.

  • Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus:

    I'm declaring a public health emergency of international concern.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    By January 30, Ghebreyesus declared the organization's most urgent warning and continued praising of China.

  • Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus:

    The speed with which China detected the outbreak, isolated the virus, sequenced the genome, and shared it with WHO and the world are very impressive and beyond words.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The administration's critics accuse President Trump of deflecting blame from his own failings, and note he too praised China and the WHO early on.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I think China is very professionally run, in the sense that they have everything under control. I really believe they're going to have it under control.

    We just sent some of our best people over there, World Health Organization, and a lot of them are composed of our people. They're fantastic.

  • Narrator:

    Within the framework of the United Nations, a new organization exists to promote the welfare of all people.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In July 1948, the WHO was born with an American director general and an agenda to help the sick across the world.

  • Narrator:

    All peoples of every race and belief will be helped by doctors from all races and nations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    WHO has launched successful polio campaigns in some of the world's most dangerous countries, like Syria, coordinated and trained vaccine efforts going back to cholera, and battled diseases like Ebola in the developing world.

    Senior U.S. officials tell "PBS NewsHour" they're looking to redirect money to other health organizations. But the U.S. might also decide some WHO programs are irreplaceable, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday.

  • Secretary Mike Pompeo:

    If there is a function that only the WHO can do, and we think it is important for American national security or because we are good humanitarian partners around the world, I'm confident we will find a way to deliver that outcome.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, is the Trump administration's criticism of the WHO valid?

    For that, we get two views.

    Dr. Michael Merson is professor of global health at Duke University. He held a number of leadership positions at the WHO for 17 years, including directing their acute respiratory infections control program. And Lanhee Chen is director of domestic policy studies at Stanford University. He also served in the George W. Bush administration as a senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services.

    Thank you very much. Welcome to the "NewsHour" to you both.

    Dr. Merson, let me start with you.

    What do you make of the fundamental critique of the WHO? Is it valid?

  • Michael Merson:

    I think one can argue that the Chinese government didn't act fast and strong enough to the appearance of this new coronavirus.

    They ignored some early signs, and they stifled some whistle-blowers, and this needs to be looked into.

    But I think, from the standpoint of WHO, I think they, for the most part, acted quickly and decisively.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, Lanhee Chen, what about that? Did they act quickly and decisively? And, as we just reported, the Trump administration said that they accepted China too much at face value.

  • Lanhee Chen:

    Well, I don't think there is any question that the WHO was more interested, in this case specifically, of parroting what the Chinese government was telling it, as opposed to truly evaluating the situation.

    Now, some will argue that's because of systemic issues at the WHO, limitations on its own power and authority. And that may be. But the fact remains that the WHO waited for 10 weeks between the first manifestation of symptoms in Wuhan before even sending a group of individuals to go to the ground in China to investigate what was going on.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Dr. Merson, we just heard the word parroting.

    But the WHO argues it has to pass along what its member countries give it. And, in this case, China wasn't giving it anything. And when it did give the WHO some information, it was that there was no human-to-human transmission in late December, early January.

  • Michael Merson:

    I think soon, within 48 hours of hearing about this coronavirus, WHO put the word out to institutions in 70 countries about the presence of the virus.

    They then continued to hold almost daily briefings. They sent information to countries, all of this in the first few weeks of January, about the virus, how it was spread. They were able to share the genetic sequence of the virus, so that countries could make diagnostic tests, even begin to make a vaccine.

    They produced a booklet, information on how you could even go ahead and make a PCR diagnostic test. The director general and his team went to China to talk to the authorities there. And by the end of the month of January, they had convened an emergency committee that had declared a public health emergency, which is, under the international health regulations, the highest alert that WHO can issue.

    So I think, within a month, that's a very impressive track record.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, Lanhee Chen, what about that? From the time that China did officially declare something in late December, all the way through late January, WHO took those steps, and the director general saying yesterday and for the last couple of weeks that they sounded the alarm early and often.

  • Lanhee Chen:

    Well, there were critical missteps early as well that I think contributed, unfortunately, according to some scientific analysis, to the spread of the virus much more widely and much more virulently than it had to.

    So, the early notation, for example, on January 14, essentially repeating China's claims regarding the virus not being transmissible between humans, and, in fact, not even providing the same caveats that China provided at the time, that was a crucial early mistake.

    The failure to, as I said earlier, investigate more thoroughly until mid-February exactly what was happening on the ground, contrast that, by the way, to how the WHO very forcefully addressed SARS back in 2002, when it sought information from non-governmental sources, when it sought information on the ground, when it actually provoked China to finally admit stuff was going on there in country at the time.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Dr. Merson, when I talk to administration officials, they emphasized that they're trying to get positive outcomes and they want to reform of the WHO and to try and give the WHO more power to, for example, not just repeat what China is telling them.

    Are those ideas for reform valid? Are they possible?

  • Michael Merson:

    It's always a good idea to see how U.N. agencies can be improved.

    WHO, over its history, has had various looks at how its administrations and operations can be improved. But it's not time to do this now. We are faced with the worst pandemic in the last 100 years. We have had mostly, so far, our attention on initially China, Europe, United States.

    But the real fear is, this pandemic is now going to really strike the low- and middle-income countries. There are over 110 of these. And these countries depend on WHO for their technical advice, for their strategic thinking, for their equipment, for supplies. And they need WHO.

    Their health systems are fragile. They don't have equipment that they need. And they're going to get that from WHO. And there's a projection from Oxford that there might be as many as 1.4 million deaths in the next year in these low- and middle-income countries.

    So, this is just not the time to break a key lifeline that these countries have to keep their populations as healthy as they can be. If we continue to have hot spots anywhere in the world, that's a threat to our own security, and that, unless all countries are healthy, no country is safe from this pandemic.

    And by going after WHO now, we're basically threatening our own global security.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Lanhee Chen, what about the idea that the timing is bad, that the WHO does things that it needs to be allowed do in this pandemic, and also the criticism of President Trump?

    Should President Trump be blaming the WHO for some of the mistakes that he's made?

  • Lanhee Chen:

    Well, undoubtedly, the WHO does important work. And the WHO is not solely responsible for the pandemic outbreak.

    But I think we have to take a cold look at the numbers and realize that, of the U.S. contribution in 2018-'19 to the WHO, only 1.6 percent of our contribution went to pandemic preparedness and response.

    The notion that somehow the organization is going to be crippled because the U.S. takes a pause in looking at how it wants to fund and potentially reform the organization, in my mind, is a red herring.

    We need to continue to ensure the organization is able to do what it does best, but that doesn't mean by continuing the status quo. And as Secretary Pompeo noted in the opening piece, the U.S. is going to find a way to ensure that critical needs are funded.

    But the idea that somehow pandemic response is going to be curbed or going to be completely shut down because the U.S. takes a hold on funding is untrue, given the numbers and given the actual contribution we make to the organization.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Lanhee Chen, Dr. Michael Merson, thank you very much.

  • Lanhee Chen:

    Thank you.

  • Michael Merson:

    Thank you.

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