Nations around the world reacted with alarm on Wednesday after US President Donald Trump announced a halt to the sizeable funding the United States sends to the World Health Organisation. Health experts warned the move could jeopardise global efforts to stop the coronavirus pandemic.
The US administration will put funding for the global health body on hold after accusing the agency of taking China's claims about the coronavirus "at face value" and a lack of transparency about the pandemic as it spread.
US President Donald Trump on Tuesday told the daily Covid-19 briefing that America had a duty to insist on full accountability from the WHO.
“The outbreak could have been contained at its source with very little death,” Mr Trump said. “So much death has been caused by their mistakes.”
He said that amid the Covid-19 pandemic, he had “deep concerns” as to whether “US generosity” was put to best use at the WHO.
Mr Trump accused the organisation of pushing disinformation from China about the virus, which emerged in the central city of Wuhan late last year.
The European Union on Wednesday said Mr Trump has "no reason" to freeze WHO funding at this critical stage and called for measures to promote unity instead of division. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the 27-nation bloc "deeply" regrets the suspension of funds and added that the UN health agency is now "needed more than ever" to combat the pandemic.
Mr Borrell said "only by joining forces can we overcome this crisis that knows no borders."
Even though they have been traditional allies for decades, the EU has increasingly been critical of the Trump administration over the past years.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he sympathised with some of Mr Trump's criticisms of WHO and China but that Australia would continue to fund the UN health agency.
"We work closely with them so that we're not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater here," Mr Morrison told Perth Radio 6PR. "But they're also not immune from criticism."
Germany's foreign minister, Heiko Maas, pushed back at Mr Trump's announcement.
"Placing blame doesn't help," he wrote on Twitter. "The virus knows no borders. We must work closely against Covid-19. Strengthening the UN, in particular the underfunded WHO, is a better investment, for example, to develop and distribute tests and vaccines."
The US is now the centre of the outbreak, with more than 582,000 people known to be infected and more than 23,000 fatalities.
After Mr Trump's handling of the crisis, which has caused his public approval ratings to drop, his administration blamed the coronavirus pandemic on the WHO.
Trump supporters accused WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of being unfairly lenient on China.
America is the largest financial backer of the WHO's operations and has contributed about $893 million (Dh3.28 billion) during its two-year funding cycle. China has given about $86m.
US officials will now discuss what to do with the funds that are usually allocated to the WHO.
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres hit back at the decision, saying it is "not the time to reduce the resources for the operations of the World Health Organisation or any other humanitarian organisation in the fight against the virus."
"The move sends the wrong message during the middle of a pandemic," said Dr Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Centres for Health Security.
Dr Adalja said the WHO does make mistakes, as it did in delaying the response to the Ebola outbreak in 2013 and 2014 in West Africa. He said reforms may be needed, but that work needs to take place after the pandemic has passed.
"It's not the middle of a pandemic that you do this type of thing," he said.
Dr Adalja said the WHO collects information about where the virus is active in every county in the world, which the United States needs to help guide decisions about when to open borders.
Mr Trump did not talk about the latest death toll in America or the rise in infections.
Instead, he said the US could produce up to 200,000 ventilators this year and that the economy would quickly recover from the crisis.
A day earlier, Mr Trump became angry at a briefing while defending his administration's response to the outbreak.
A report in The New York Times at the weekend said health experts and administration officials in February recommended physical distancing in the US to battle the coronavirus, but they were rebuffed for almost a month.