China's Xi announces $2B for coronavirus response as WHO faces calls for investigation

The videoconference focused on cooperation on vaccines, treatments and testing has already been marred by a blame game over the handling of the pandemic.

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By Yuliya Talmazan, Keir Simmons and Laura Saravia

Tensions surrounding the global handling of the coronavirus pandemic came to a head at the World Health Organization's assembly Monday, with China pledging an extra $2 billion to deal with the crisis and the United States blaming the WHO for a failed response that "cost many lives."

Speaking by video link, Chinese President Xi Jinping told the 73rd World Health Assembly that his country's funding package would aid "economic and social development" in developing countries hit badly by COVID-19.

That contrasts with President Donald Trump's move to withdraw donations from the WHO, which would mean stepping back as the organization's biggest financial backer. He accuses the WHO of helping China cover up the pandemic's early stages and worsening its spread, which both the organization and Beijing deny.

The WHO assembly, being held virtually for the first time, is officially focused on international cooperation on vaccines, treatments and testing to fight the virus.

Monday's assembly was the latest sign of tension during a pandemic that has killed more than 300,000 people worldwide and triggered a drastic escalation in tension between the United States and China.

Whereas Xi heaped praise on the WHO during Monday's summit, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said that the organization's "failure cost many lives and it must not happen again."

Azar added that the "WHO must change and must become more transparent. We need a more effective WHO right now." Without naming China directly, he said that there had been "an apparent attempt to conceal this outbreak by at least one member state."

Trump's move to withdraw WHO funding has been met with severe criticism at home and abroad. But the White House is far from alone in finding fault with the organization. Some observers say the WHO was far too credulous in believing Beijing's reassurances, which it then amplified uncritically to the wider world.

At the assembly, 116 countries so far have backed a draft resolution that's set to call for an "an impartial, independent and comprehensive" evaluation of the WHO during this pandemic. It also seeks to identify the origin of the virus.

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Xi said the WHO should lead this "global review" of the pandemic response — but only after the virus "is brought under control," which could take years. Some experts believe that the WHO should not conduct the inquiry because its actions too need to be scrutinized.

The WHO's director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, welcomed the resolution calling for an inquiry, and said that an "impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation" would happen "at the earliest appropriate moment."

"To be truly comprehensive, such an evaluation must encompass the entirety of the response by all actors, in good faith," he said.

Ghebreyesus has been under intense scrutiny himself after he lavished praise on Beijing's coronavirus response, even while critics said there was evidence it had silenced whistleblowers and underreported its cases.

In his opening address, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called for unity among nations fighting the pandemic, saying COVID-19 "must be a wake-up call," and a historic opportunity to step up research and reduce inequality in access to medical care.

"Either we stand together or we fall apart," Guterres said.

Several other heads of state, including Germany's Angela Merkel, France's Emmanuel Macron and South Korea's Moon Jae-in, also made video appearances, urging for global unity in the face of the pandemic.

Eric Baculinao contributed.