US triggers exit from World Health Organization

The US has begun the process of leaving the World Health Organization, in a contentious move that would strip the global UN body of its largest donor in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic.

Washington formally notified António Guterres, UN secretary-general, of its intention to withdraw after the standard notice period of one year, a senior Trump administration official said on Tuesday.

“The United States’ notice of withdrawal, effective July 6, 2021, has been submitted to the UN secretary-general, who is the depository for the WHO,” the official said.

President Donald Trump suspended funding to the WHO in April and said in May that he would cut all ties, after accusing the organisation of helping Beijing to hide the facts about Covid-19. The 12-month notice period leaves open the possibility that the exit could be reversed if Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, wins November’s election.

The UN secretary-general received the US notification on Monday and was “in the process of verifying with the World Health Organization whether all the conditions for such withdrawal are met”, said Stéphane Dujarric, his spokesperson.

The withdrawal conditions agreed when the US joined the WHO in 1948 include the one-year notice period and paying outstanding financial obligations in full, which are estimated at just under $100m.

The US move drew immediate criticism from political opponents and healthcare groups.

Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, tweeted: “To call Trump’s response to COVID chaotic & incoherent doesn’t do it justice. This won’t protect American lives or interests — it leaves Americans sick & America alone.” 

The Global Health Technologies Coalition, a group of more than 25 non-profit organisations, academic institutions and businesses, urged US lawmakers to press Mr Trump to rescind the withdrawal.

“The United States helped found WHO in 1948 based on the understanding that diseases know no borders and that collective efforts to eradicate disease are better than any single country going it alone,” it said in a statement. “Remaining a member of WHO is in our health, security, economic, and scientific interests, and we once again call on Congress to take action and demand the administration reverse this decision.”

The WHO exit policy has also been questioned by some Republicans, including Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate health committee, who said it could “interfere with clinical trials that are essential to the development of vaccines”.

Mr Trump has branded the WHO a “puppet of China” that helped Beijing cover up the origins of coronavirus in Wuhan province — an allegation the global body denies. In May, he gave the WHO 30 days to make “major substantive improvements” or face US withdrawal. Just 10 days later, he said he would press ahead with Washington’s exit.

The US contributed about 16.4 per cent, or almost $900m, of the WHO’s $5.45bn biennial budget for 2018-19. It was not the highest contributor per capita, with the second and third highest country donors — the UK and Germany — both paying more.

Follow Michael Peel @mikepeeljourno