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U.S. opts out of WHO-linked global COVID-19 vaccine effort

A senior HHS official says that the Trump administration will take an America First approach to vaccine distribution.
The World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva on Aug. 18, 2020.Fabrice Coffrini / AFP - Getty Images

The Trump administration is pulling U.S. officials from the headquarters of the World Health Organization, the multilateral agency leading the global fight against the cornavirus pandemic, even as cases in the United States climb above 6 million.

The U.S. officially announced its withdrawal from the WHO this summer, initiating a year-long process that will not go into effect until a year later on July 6, 2021. But the State Department announced Thursday that the U.S. is already beginning to scale down its engagement, including "recalling the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) detailees from WHO headquarters, regional offices, and country offices, and reassigning these experts."

"Today, the @realDonaldTrump Administration continues to move forward with the United States' withdrawal from the @WHO," Secretary Pompeotweeted on Thursday. "The WHO failed to adopt urgently needed reforms, starting with demonstrating its independence from the Chinese Communist Party."

U.S. participation in World Health Organization meetings will now be considered "on a case by case basis," Nerissa Cook, a deputy assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, told reporters Wednesday, "where we believe American interests need to be represented."

In addition, the U.S will now redirect remaining funds owed to the WHO — $62 million of the $120 million pledged for fiscal year 2020 — as well as the $18 million owed from fiscal year 2019, to the United Nations for "other assessments." Congress requires that the administration pay the remainder of U.S. assessed contributions to the WHO as part of the year long withdrawal process.

The administration will continue to make voluntary contributions to the WHO for specific programs, including $68 million for humanitarian health assistance in Libya and Syria as well as polio eradication in priority countries and $40 million for immunization and influenza programs, according to Dr. Alma Golden, assistant administrator for global health for the U.S. Agency for International Development. The U.S. has historically been the largest financial contributor to the World Health Organization, providing more than $400 million to the global agency in 2019.

The U.S. will also sit out the WHO-led plan to distribute a vaccine known as COVAX globally, joining China as one of the few countries to boycott the more than 170-country effort. COVAX, co-led by Gavi, the international organization that works to improve access to new and underused vaccines for children living in poor countries, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and WHO, aims to "accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world."

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Unlike the U.S., China has expressed support for the COVAX effort and Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Wednesday China "has been in communication with the WHO and other sponsors of the plan."

Pompeo justified the U.S. absence Wednesday by accusing the WHO of placing politics above science and promising U.S. financial contributions to global vaccine distribution.

"There is no nation that has been or will be as deeply committed to delivering vaccines all around the world as the United States of America, not just in terms of dollars. We will dwarf every nation in terms of the financial resources, the goodness of the American people, to give our money to make sure that these vaccines are delivered all around," Pompeo said Wednesday. "No nation will match us; it won’t even be close."

But a senior HHS official acknowledged Wednesday that the administration would be taking an America First approach to vaccine distribution.

"Once the American people, their needs with respect to the, to the vaccine are met, hopefully, depending on how the vaccine trials turnout, and the rest of it, there will be a good excess of vaccines and we certainly will be looking to do our fair share and in terms of supporting the global need for for vaccinations," Garret Grigsby of the HHS Office of Global Affairs, told reporters Wednesday. "And in addition to that there's going to be significant manufacturing capacity that is being built because of this whole process. And of course, that is going to remain available to the world as well."

U.S. participation in the WHO is still possible if it undertakes reforms "starting with demonstrating its independence from the Chinese Communist Party," Cook told reporters Wednesday. "And it needs to make improvements in its ability to prepare for, to prevent, to detect, and to respond to outbreaks of dangerous pathogens."

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus argues reforms can be made from the inside, telling “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt in an interview at the Aspen Security Forum last month that he hopes the U.S. reconsiders its decision to leave the organization.

"You cannot defeat this dangerous enemy in a divided world," he said.

“The problem is not about the money," Ghebreyesus said. "It’s not the financing that’s the issue. It’s actually the relationship with the U.S. that’s more important and its leadership abroad."