US wants WHO review of COVID-19 response to start 'now'

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FILE - In this Monday, Feb. 24, 2020 file photo, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), addresses a press conference about the update on COVID-19 at the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The European Union is calling for an independent evaluation of the World Health Organizations response to the coronavirus pandemic, to review experience gained and lessons learned. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP, File)

GENEVA – The United States says it wants the World Health Organization to start work “now” on a planned independent review of its coordinated international response to the COVID-19 outbreak, at a time the Trump administration has repeatedly criticized the agency and is threatening to cut off U.S. funding for it.

Adm. Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, sent a letter to the U.N. health agency’s executive board meeting on Friday saying the United States believes the WHO can “immediately initiate" preparations such as bringing together independent health experts and setting up guidelines for the review.

“This review will ensure we have a complete and transparent understanding of the source, timeline of events, and decision-making process for the WHO’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote Giroir, who is one of the board’s 34 international members. Giroir did not deliver that statement in person, but did briefly participate in the board’s first-ever “virtual” meeting.

Giroir alluded to a resolution passed Tuesday by the WHO’s assembly calling on Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to launch a “comprehensive evaluation” of the WHO-coordinated international response to the outbreak “at the earliest appropriate moment.”

Tedros, for his part, spoke to the board and pointed proudly to a long list of actions taken by WHO to respond to the outbreak — without directly alluding to the Trump administration pressure that was highlighted by Giroir.

“As President Trump just made clear in his May 18 letter to Director-General Tedros, there is no time to waste to begin on the reforms needed to ensure such a pandemic never happens again,” Giroir added. “We applaud the call for an impartial, independent, and comprehensive review, to be undertaken in consultation with member states, and urge that work begin now."

In that same letter, Trump warned he would make permanent a temporary freeze on U.S. funding for the WHO unless it commits to “substantive improvements” within the next 30 days. He has repeatedly criticized the WHO for its early response to the outbreak and praise for China, at a time when Trump’s own response of the outbreak in the United States —the largest in the world — has come under criticism.

Giroir, in his statement with a decidedly more diplomatic tone, said the United States was “encouraged” by an initial review by the WHO’s Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee over the January to April period.