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Feud Over WHO Funding Continues As Group Holds Annual Meeting


President Trump sent a letter on Twitter to the head of the World Health Organization last night. He demanded "major substantive improvements" - that's a quote - in the next 30 days or, he threatened, he will permanently stop funding for the WHO. The agency is holding an annual convention right now virtually. NPR's global health and development correspondent Jason Beaubien has been following all this. Good morning, Jason.


KING: So what was in that letter that the president said - sent to the WHO?

BEAUBIEN: Well, you know, it's a fairly typical letter from the Trump administration, very hard-hitting. It's slamming China, slamming the WHO, accusing the WHO of - for political reasons or for being unwilling to stand up to China - downplaying the initial significance of this outbreak. He's asserting that as early as December 30, the WHO's office in Beijing knew how bad this outbreak was going to be and that there was a major public health concern in Wuhan. You know, some of the allegations in the letter assume that the WHO has far more power than it actually does to investigate outbreaks.

He also claims that Taiwan told the WHO on December 31 that there was human-to-human transmission of the virus, which wasn't exactly what Taiwan had said and definitely had not been validated at that point. But the big point here is that, as the largest donor to the World Health Organization, he's now threatening, in the midst of this pandemic, to cut off funding. And he's threatening to pull the U.S. out of the organization altogether, saying that it's not serving America's interests.

KING: This happened late last night. Has the WHO responded at all?

BEAUBIEN: I have not yet seen a response from the WHO. But I'm sure that we're going to get more of that today as this World Health Assembly continues.

KING: Continues. This is their annual meeting. They have them once a year. The main focus this year. As you would expect, is COVID-19, right?


KING: But the U.S. and China have been fighting over who is responsible for what part of this pandemic. Are you seeing that play out at this meeting?

BEAUBIEN: You are definitely seeing it play out at this meeting. And there's sort of two tracks. You've got all of these different countries. You got representatives from 194 nations coming onto this virtual meeting, giving speeches, talking about coming together as the world. This is what most of the countries are talking about. Like, let's deal with this pandemic. Let's fight it together. Let's come up with solutions together.

And then you get China coming out. And they're slamming the United States. And then you get the United States responding. And they're slamming back. And it's really become this huge distraction at a time when all of these representatives are attempting to figure out how the WHO is going to move forward and get this global crisis under control.

KING: Well, one of their goals, one of the goals of this meeting, was something they were calling a people's vaccine. So they were going to get all of the countries on the same page, get a vaccine done. Because the U.S. and China are fighting, is that looking likely?

BEAUBIEN: It looks like you might still get an initiative that would support making any vaccine that does get developed a public good - basically, declaring that companies can't profit off of it, that it would be made available universally. And that is one of the big goals coming out of this is to try to figure out how the world can pull its resources together to start coming up with a vaccine, rather than having different initiatives happening in different parts of the world.

We do expect that there's going to be a resolution calling for consensus on this and calling for any vaccine that does get developed to be declared, as I said, a public good, which would make it a nonprofit product that wouldn't be a commercial one, but would be more widely available throughout the world.

KING: Is there anything else, real quick, that the WHO would like to show that it got done at this meeting?

BEAUBIEN: I think they would like to show solidarity. Yet, I think that the fight between China and the U.S. is going to make that really hard.

KING: OK. NPR's global health correspondent Jason Beaubien. Thanks, Jason.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.