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WHO coronavirus assembly: U.S.-China clash dominates as summit reaches finale

President Donald Trump teed up the final day of the summit by sending an excoriating letter to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
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LONDON — Amid escalating tensions between the United States and China, the World Health Organization's annual assembly passed a resolution Tuesday calling for an investigation into how the WHO and the wider world have responded to the coronavirus crisis.

Many questions remain unanswered and there is plenty of scope for further conflict.

Though the resolution was passed without objection at the 73rd World Health Assembly, it is not clear when this international investigation might happen, what its scope might be, and what role the WHO will play. The United States and China both welcomed the proposal, but the assembly highlighted the acute hostility between the world's two largest economies — a battle that has enveloped the WHO itself.

President Donald Trump has leveled fierce criticism at the WHO, accusing it of being "a puppet of China" and helping that country cover up the outbreak's early stages, something the WHO and Beijing deny.

The U.S. is currently the single biggest donor to the WHO but Trump has threatened to withdraw that money.

The resolution, drafted by the European Union and backed by more than 130 countries, passed Tuesday calls for an "impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation" of the WHO's response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 300,000 people worldwide.

Image: World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus delivering a speech during the opening of the World Health Assembly virtual meeting from the WHO headquarters in Geneva
Tedros speaks at the assembly Monday.Christopher Black / AFP - Getty Images

In contrast to Trump's harsh rhetoric, China has thrown its support behind the beleaguered health organization. Chinese President Xi Jinping announced at the assembly an extra $2 billion in coronavirus relief for the developing world.

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

China also put its name to the resolution calling for 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.

"Now the real battle begins, on the timing of the inquiry, its scope and its composition," Mukesh Kapila, a former adviser to the WHO's previous director-general, said. While generally sympathetic to the WHO, Kapila warned that if the organization is too heavily involved in the evaluation, it risks becoming "a fake inquiry and a whitewash."

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The U.S. did not openly object to the resolution but it filed a statement to the WHO objecting to several paragraphs contained within it.

One of these related to abortion. The U.S. objected to a line about maintaining access to "sexual and reproductive health" because, it said, the Trump administration believes "in legal protections for the unborn, and rejects any interpretation of international human rights" that requires countries "to provide access to abortion."

The other objection was on vaccines. The resolution calls for the "universal, timely and equitable access" to vaccines and other medical supplies. But the U.S. said that the language used would "send the wrong message to innovators" when it came to the intellectual property of these drugs.

That hints at another looming fight about whether vaccines can or should be distributed fairly around the world if a successful immunizing shot is found.

Trump's 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.

Image: President Donald Trump speaks during a roundtable in the State Dining Room of the White House
Trump speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House on Monday.Doug Mills / Getty Images

Meanwhile, 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."

And ahead of the assembly's second and final day, Trump sent an excoriating letter to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, accusing him of doing "a very sad job" and doubling down on his criticisms of China.

In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called Trump's letter an attempt at "slander." And later during the closing stages of the assembly, China's ambassador to the United Nations, Chen Xu, accused the U.S. of "political hype" instead of concentrating on fighting the virus.

Closing out the largely dial-in event, Tedros, the WHO director-general, attempted to rise above the sour tone that has dominated the assembly and clouded much of the pandemic response in general.

"We may speak different languages, but we share the same DNA," he said, wearing a colorful blue shirt and not referencing Trump's letter hours earlier. "Together we will overcome this challenge."

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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 organizations 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.