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‘A shameful moment’: Trump announces formal withdrawal from WHO as COVID-19 cases climb

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“This won’t protect American lives or interests—it leaves Americans sick and America alone.”

Epidemiologists and public interest groups were among the critics condemning the White House’s announcement on Tuesday that the U.S. is formally withdrawing from the World Health Organization, five weeks after threatening to do so.

The move was announced to WHO on Monday and comes as more than 539,000 people around the world have died of the coronavirus, including more than 130,000 in the U.S., where the number of Covid-19 cases has been climbing for weeks.

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Countries are officially required to give WHO one year’s notice before formally leaving the organization, which counts the U.S. as its largest funder. The U.S. contributed $426 million per year in recent years and currently owes WHO more than $200 million in dues for 2020. The U.S. State Department did not indicate on Tuesday whether the government plans to pay its debt to the organization as it leads the global response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“What a dark, dark, sickening day for America and the world,” public health expert Eric Feigl-Ding tweeted in response to the news.

As the world battles Covid-19—as well as other ongoing public health threats—Trump’s decision is likely to have far-reaching and potentially deadly implications, wrote Helen Branswell at Stat News:

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The move plunges global health governance into the unknown, creating questions about the economic viability of the WHO, the future of the polio eradication program, the system for reporting dangerous infectious disease outbreaks, and myriad other programs that are as pertinent to the health of Americans as they are to people from countries around the world, such as efforts to combat the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Trump has blamed WHO for not taking control of the pandemic after China first publicized a cluster of Covid-19 cases in Wuhan in late December 2019. As WHO communicated with world leaders in January about how to prepare for the pandemic, however, the Trump administration was dismissing the warnings of public health experts in the United States and downplaying the need to strengthen its medical supply chain.

Trump also severely hampered the United States’ ability to observe the early days of the pandemic in China when he cut staff by more than two-thirds at the CDC’s offices in Beijing before the pandemic.

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Government watchdog Public Citizen called the president’s decision on Tuesday “a shameful moment,” and warned that the U.S. and the world will now be even less able to effectively confront the pandemic.

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U.S. diplomat Jimmy Kolker told Stat News that the U.S. will “inevitably” rejoin WHO in the future, but that its hasty exit in the middle of the global health crisis will make partnering with other countries difficult in the long-term.

“There will be no incentive to take U.S. needs into account,” Kolker told the outlet. “It will be much harder than some might assume to find alternate channels for us to engage in global health activities. Our investment will no longer leverage others’ and experts in other countries will have to diversify their partnerships away from the CDC, the NIH, or USAID, as these may not be sustainable. Once deals are struck and arrangements made without U.S. involvement, it will be an uphill struggle to retrofit them if the U.S. has an interest in getting involved.”

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Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle were distressed at the news; Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) noted that withdrawing from WHO could “interfere with clinical trials that are essential to the development of vaccines” for Covid-19.

“To call Trump’s response to COVID chaotic and incoherent doesn’t do it justice,” tweeted Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). “This won’t protect American lives or interests—it leaves Americans sick and America alone.”


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