U.S.-China clash dominates as summit reaches finale

LONDON — As countries struggle to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization’s annual meeting is reaching its finale Tuesday having descended into fiery dispute involving the United States, China and the WHO itself.

Meanwhile, the organization is facing additional pressure after the assembly passed a resolution Tuesday calling for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the WHO’s response to the pandemic, which has killed more than 300,000 people worldwide.

President Donald Trump teed up the second and final day of the 73rd World Health Assembly by sending an excoriating letter to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who he accused of doing “a very sad job” in attempting to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

Tedros speaks at the assembly Monday.Christopher Black / AFP – Getty Images

In his letter, the president threatened to make permanent a temporary funding freeze on American donations as he accuses it of helping China cover up the outbreak. The U.S. is the WHO’s biggest donor.

This came after an address to the WHO assembly Monday by Trump’s secretary of health and human services, Alex Azar, who said the WHO’s “failure cost many lives and it must not happen again.”

Tedros, the WHO’s director-general, is expected to speak at the event again Tuesday, which may give him an opportunity to respond to Trump’s latest attack.

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China has thrown its support behind the beleaguered health organization. Contrasting with Trump’s harsh rhetoric and threats to withdraw funding, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced an extra $2 billion in coronavirus relief for the developing world.

Last year, China donated about $86 million to WHO, while the U.S. donated about $450 million.

Xi said he backed an investigation into the pandemic but said it must be led by the WHO “in an objective and impartial manner” and should only start after the virus is brought under control.

That might take years, and many experts say that the WHO should not be involved in any coronavirus inquiry because its own actions — and its relationship with China — must be investigated too.

Trump speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House on Monday.Doug Mills / Getty Images

During a daily briefing Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called Trump’s letter an attempt to “slander” China.

“At present, the COVID-19 pneumonia epidemic is still spreading in the United States and in many parts of the world,” he said. “We urge a small number of U.S. politicians to stop dumping their blame, strengthen cooperation with the international community, and overcome the epidemic together.”

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U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot called China’s funding boost “a token to distract from calls from a growing number of nations demanding accountability for the Chinese government’s failure to meet its obligations.”

Trump accuses the WHO of being “a puppet of China” and helping it cover up aspects of the outbreak in its early stages, something the organization and Beijing has repeatedly denied.

The threat to withdraw U.S. donations has been met with widespread criticism. Even many who agree that the WHO has made mistakes say that a pandemic is not the time to be undermining the only health organization capable of coordinating an international response.

After the assembly started its second day Tuesday, some of the WHO’s 194 member states had their say on another contentious issue that has divided the U.S. and China: that of Taiwan.

Taiwan is locked out of most global organisations such as the WHO due to the objections of China, which considers the island one of its provinces.

The U.S. wants Taiwan to be part of the WHO, saying that, as a country whose coronavirus response has won plaudits around the world, its contribution would be valuable.

Taiwan’s plight has gained support from Japan, Britain, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and others. Pakistan sided with China during its address to the assembly Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the African Union said it worried about the impact of COVID-19 on the ability to deal with existing problems such as HIV.

“My country is facing other challenges relating to health which require attention, including Ebola as well as rubella and polio,” added the representative for the Democratic Republic of Congo, who was not introduced by name.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Laura Saravia and Kate Brannelly contributed.