Major health groups raise alarm over U.S. departure from World Health Organization

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President Donald Trump said Friday during remarks in the Rose Garden at the White House that the U.S. is terminating its relationship with the World Health Organization and redirecting those funds to other global health initiatives. In this photo, taken during a separate White House briefing, the president show a testing machine for COVID-19. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Major health groups raised alarm following the announcement Friday by President Donald Trump that the U.S. is terminating its relationship with the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Trump previously said he would cut funding to WHO, a United Nations agency that helps promote global health initiatives including addressing disease outbreaks. He said WHO has not pushed for accountability over its handling of the virus that is believed to have originated in Wuhan, China. He has also previously said WHO was slow to act in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"China has total control over the World Health Organization, despite only paying $40 million per year compared to what the United States has been paying, which is approximately $450 million a year," Trump said in his remarks. He said he would be redirecting funding "to other worldwide and deserving, urgent, global public health needs."

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But organizations such as the American Medical Association (AMA) and the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) condemned the move, saying it will make the work of fighting the global pandemic "dramatically more challenging."

"In the grip of a global pandemic that has already killed more than 100,000 Americans, severing ties with the World Health Organization (WHO) serves no logical purpose and makes finding a way out of this public health crisis dramatically more challenging," said AMA President Patrice Harris, M.D., in a statement. "This senseless action will have significant, harmful repercussions now and far beyond this perilous moment, particularly as the WHO is leading worldwide vaccine development and drug trials to combat the pandemic."

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"COVID-19 affects us all and does not respect borders; defeating it requires the entire world working together," she said. "In the strongest terms possible, the American Medical Association urges the President to reverse course and not abandon our country’s leadership position in the global fight against COVID-19.”

The IDSA, which represents infectious disease physicians, said it also stands "strongly" against the decision.

"This pandemic has demonstrated that neither national boundaries nor political positions can protect us from the spread of an infectious disease," said President Thomas File Jr., M.D., in a statement. "We will not succeed against this pandemic, or any future outbreak, unless we stand together, share information, and coordinate actions.” 

Association of American Medical Colleges Chief Scientific Officer Ross McKinney Jr., M.D., said the organization is "extremely disappointed." 

"In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, countries of the world should be working together to improve the health of all people. This decision is counter to that goal," McKinney said. "The president’s decision to leave the WHO is very troubling, in both the short- and long-terms, and we hope the decision is soon reversed. The world needs a collaborative effort now, more than ever, to resolve our ongoing crisis and prepare for future global health emergencies.”

While some Republicans have echoed Trump's concerns about WHO in recent weeks, U.S. Senate health committee Chairman Lamar Alexander said he also disagreed with the decision.

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"Certainly there needs to be a good, hard look at mistakes the World Health Organization might have made in connection with coronavirus, but the time to do that is after the crisis has been dealt with, not in the middle of it," Alexander said. "Withdrawing U.S. membership could, among other things, interfere with clinical trials that are essential to the development of vaccines, which citizens of the United States as well as others in the world need. And withdrawing could make it harder to work with other countries to stop viruses before they get to the United States."

WHO has not yet commented on the decision.

But the same day Trump announced the termination of the U.S. involvement with WHO, the organization announced a "landmark" partnership between 30 countries and multiple international partners to support what is being called the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), an initiative aimed at making vaccines, tests, treatments and other health technologies to fight COVID-19 accessible.

The pool was first proposed in March by President Carlos Alvarado of Costa Rica.

“Global solidarity and collaboration are essential to overcoming COVID-19,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, M.D., in a statement. “Based on strong science and open collaboration, this information-sharing platform will help provide equitable access to life-saving technologies around the world.”

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