Researchers for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tasked to the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva fed real-time information to the White House as the coronavirus outbreak began in China at the end of 2019, according to The Washington Post.
Citing unnamed U.S. and international officials, the Post reported that high-level health officials appointed by President Donald Trump “consulted regularly” with their WHO counterparts.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC, confirmed that it had 17 staff members, 16 of them from the CDC, at WHO headquarters in January as part of a regular rotation. HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said in a statement that they were “working on a variety of programs, including COVID-19 and Ebola.”
Oakley, who called the Post report “misleading,” stressed that not all of the U.S. researchers were working on the coronavirus and that they “had no role in decisions made by WHO leaders.” The Post report did not claim all the CDC staffers were researching COVID-19, nor that they were involved in the United Nations health agency’s decisions.
Oakley objected to the Post’s claim that its reporting “undercuts President Trump’s assertion about the WHO’s failure to communicate the extent of the threat.”
“Just because you have Americans embedded in WHO providing technical assistance does not change the information you are getting from WHO leadership,” Oakley said. “We have learned now that WHO information was incorrect and relied too heavily on China.”
Oakley faulted the WHO for not getting boots on the ground in China until mid-February and for “blindly” accepting the information relayed by Chinese officials.
When asked about the Post report Monday, Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, said he was not aware of “any specific communications between U.S. government officials who are based here at WHO with ourselves and the White House.” He said he was “sure there were many warnings because WHO itself was clearly putting out information on this event since the very beginning.”
Ryan said he would be “shocked” if there had not been “some science-based discussions going on around the implications” of the coronavirus among the researchers working at WHO when the outbreak began.
Ryan praised the researchers from U.S. agencies who worked with the WHO, saying he had “served in the front lines with some of the finest scientists that I have ever met.”
“We are hugely grateful for their contribution and the major contribution that U.S. embedded government officials have played since the very beginning of this outbreak,” Ryan said.
Last week, Trump announced he was cutting off funding of the WHO because he felt the organization did not respond quickly enough to the outbreak and did not share the information it obtained with the United States. The United States is by far the organization’s largest contributor, giving about $400 million for 2018-2019, according to the WHO website.
“So much death has been caused by their mistakes,” Trump said last week. He said his administration planned to investigate the organization’s “severe” mismanagement of the response.
Oakley said that even though China “stalled for weeks” on allowing international health experts into the country, “the WHO never criticized them for the delay and even praised China for its ‘transparency.’ ” She cited Ryan, who said Jan. 29, “We’ve seen no obvious lack of transparency.”
Around that time, Trump also said he thought China was being upfront about the outbreak.
“China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency,” Trump tweeted Jan. 24. “It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!”
Though health experts agree the WHO has its problems, they decried the decision to cut its funding amid a pandemic that has killed more than 168,000 people.
Last week, Trump repeated his criticism of the WHO during a call with leaders from the Group of Seven nations. Even as Trump denounced the WHO, several leaders defended the organization and said its work was critical to the fight against the virus.
“There is a need for international coordination, and the WHO is an important part of that collaboration and coordination,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said. “We recognize that there have been questions asked, but at the same time, it is really important that we stay coordinated as we move through this.”
French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his support for the WHO and said the organization must play a “central role” as part of an “ambitious and coordinated international response” to the virus crisis.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said cutting funding for the WHO was like “throwing the pilot out of the plane.”
Maas said the international health agency is the “backbone” in the battle to stop the coronavirus, “and that’s why it makes no sense at all to question the functioning and significance of the WHO now.”
On Sunday, ABC News “This Week” host George Stephanopoulos asked Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, if she thought it was fair to blame the WHO for the outbreak if CDC officials were getting the same information as the U.N. agency.
Birx stressed the need for high levels of transparency during a pandemic, saying it was better to “over-communicate” and share “even the small nuances.”
She indicated the responsibility was more with China, saying, “It’s always the first country that gets exposed to the pandemic that has a higher moral obligation on communicating, on transparency because all the other countries around the world are making decisions on that.
“When we get through this as a global community, we can figure out really what has to happen for first alerts and transparency,” Birx said.