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WHO Spokeswoman On Trump's Threat To Permanently Cut Funding

NOEL KING, HOST:

What does the World Health Organization think about President Trump's threat to permanently cut funding? He says the WHO defers too much to China. In a letter to the agency's leader, he gave the WHO 30 days to make substantive improvements. Though, he didn't really specify what that means. Dr. Margaret Harris is a member of the WHO's coronavirus response team. She's also the agency's spokesperson. And she's on Skype from Switzerland this morning. Hello, Dr. Harris.

MARGARET HARRIS: Good morning, Noel.

KING: U.S. contributions were about 20% of the WHO's budget in 2018 and '19 - $893 million in fees and pledges to programs. What would a permanent cut mean for your work?

HARRIS: So the U.S. has always been a fantastic partner not just financially, but in terms of expertise and guidance and ability to always stand up and do so much. We are chronically underfunded. But we will continue to do the work on coronavirus. The areas that may suffer are really important, things like the work to prevent deaths in children in Africa, vaccination, polio programs, HIV. So yes, it's a concern. But the world should not fear that we won't continue to guide the global response.

KING: If the United States was to permanently cut funding, Congress would have to approve it. That, arguably, seems unlikely. Does that give you some reassurance? Or is the problem here that President Trump, by making these statements, is damaging the WHO's reputation globally?

HARRIS: So again, we stand by what we do. Our work speaks for itself. And in terms of reputation, that's where our reputation is built, on the work that's done. We truly believe that the U.S. will continue to take - fulfill its fantastic role in public health and will continue to be a wonderful partner.

KING: The WHO just finished its annual meeting. All of the member nations were there. Did you get the sense that member nations understand where the United States is coming from? Or did they overwhelmingly or mostly continue to pledge their support to the WHO?

HARRIS: At the meeting, there was a very, very strong sense of solidarity by - among the majority of member states. The message that really came through was there was an understanding of the importance of national unity and global solidarity. And what we heard were - member states certainly talk about the difficulties they had faced. But they were really - it was about sharing lessons learned and about working together to beat this outbreak.

KING: I'd like to talk about next steps to beat this outbreak. What is the WHO's plan of action to contain this virus as we go forward?

HARRIS: So the strategies are based on every country following what sounds very simple - test, track, treat and detect every case. But having said it's simple, in reality, the application isn't that easy. It takes a lot of commitment from not just national authorities or local authorities, but also - but for every person in the community to understand that beating this outbreak is in their hands - following the simple things like the hand sanitization, the physical distancing and the environmental cleansing, but also being aware of whether or not they've been infected and identify - getting tested and identifying whether or not they may be exposed and self-isolating if necessary.

KING: Did anything new come out of the meeting, though, in terms of next steps forward?

HARRIS: One of the important things that came out was the determination by the world to work together to identify the vaccines and the therapeutics that will ultimately be really, really important weapons against this virus, and to ensure they will be delivered equitably to those most in need or those for whom, if you vaccinate first, you will most effectively break the chain of transmission.

KING: And that wasn't derailed by this fight between the U.S. and China over who's to blame?

HARRIS: Not at all. That work, which is - started with the initiative called the ACT accelerator, which was to accelerate the work on vaccines and therapeutics, but also to accelerate the conversations around equitable - effective, rapid and equitable delivery of the tools once we have them. That was - that conversation and that commitment only strengthened during this meeting.

KING: Lastly, are you concerned, as many seem to be, about a second wave of infections in the fall?

HARRIS: What we're seeing in countries that have closed down their outbreaks, some have seen an uptick in infections when measures have loosened. So we certainly know that if the virus is anywhere, it's everywhere. And we all have to understand that.

KING: Dr. Margaret Harris of the WHO joining us via Skype. Thank you so much.

HARRIS: That's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.