US scuppers G20 coronavirus statement on strengthening WHO

Exclusive: objections leave health ministers unable to agree joint communique on cooperation

Saudi health minister Tawfiq al-Rabia




The Saudi health minister, Tawfiq Al-Rabiah, on Sunday chairing a virtual meeting on Covid-19 with health ministers from the G20.
Photograph: G20MEDIA/AFP via Getty Images

US hostility to the World Health Organization scuppered the publication of a communique by G20 health ministers on Sunday that committed to strengthening the WHO’s mandate in coordinating a response to the global coronavirus pandemic.

In place of a lengthy statement with paragraphs of detail, the leaders instead issued a brief statement saying that gaps existed in the way the world handled pandemics.

The failure to agree on a statement will underline the extent to which the pandemic has become a theatre for a wider global disagreement between the US and China in which other nation states are finding themselves increasingly forced to take sides.

Donald Trump has suspended US payments to the WHO in protest at what he regards as the body’s China-centric approach, reflected – in his view – by its failure to challenge China sufficiently over the origins of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Tawfiq Al-Rabiah, the health minister for Saudi Arabia, which was hosting the virtual summit, abruptly cancelled a planned press conference on Sunday, saying he urgently needed to attend a domestic coronavirus taskforce meeting.

A six-paragraph statement made no mention of the WHO, but referred to systematic weaknesses in the way in which the world handled pandemics.

However, an unpublished 52-paragraph draft communique supported and committed to further strengthen the WHO’s mandate in coordinating the fight against the pandemic, including the protection of frontline health workers and delivery of medical supplies, especially diagnostic tools medicines and vaccines.

The draft also expressed “concern about the continuity and lack of sustainable funding” of the WHO’s health emergencies programme. It urged all donors to invest in the fund, saying “it is far more cost effective to invest in sustainable financing for country preparedness than to pay to the costs of responding to outbreaks”.

Several days before the meeting it had emerged that the US health and human services secretary, Alex Azar, would not be attending as scheduled. Other attendees said they understood that Trump did not want him to participate. Instead, the US was represented by Eric Hargan, Azar’s deputy, and another US official.

Sherpas for other delegations were also made aware before the meeting of US objections to language relating to the WHO, which was supported by the 19 other countries.

According to those present, many of the representatives at the meeting spoke of the key role being played by the WHO and praised the value of the guidance it has issued during the outbreak.

Sources said that some representatives also made the point that any inquest into the handling of the pandemic by the WHO – as demanded by the Trump administration – should wait until after the pandemic was brought under control.

When the US delegation’s turn came to speak, Hargan explained that the US “could not endorse” the declaration, instead suggesting that a summary be issued in the form of a press release.

The bulk of the draft communique constituted a call for countries to cooperate multilaterally to prevent future pandemics, highlighting the current inequality in health resources and the human suffering the pandemic was causing.

The draft contained no implicit or explicit criticism of China’s initial handling of the crisis, saying instead all sides were committed to learning lessons from the crisis, including the vulnerabilities exposed by the global communities response.

Donald Trump last week suspended US payments to the WHO claiming the organisation was too “China-centric” and accused its leadership of failing to alert the world to the scale of the pandemic that began in Wuhan until it was too late.

The WHO has insisted it acted as soon as it had information from Beijing and stated that it needed Chinese support to gain access to China, and investigate the issue of human-to-human transmission.

The US has previously prevented the G7, a smaller group of mainly western industrialised countries, from reaching a joint position when foreign ministers were unable to agree with a US insistence that the virus be described as the “Wuhan virus”.

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What is the World Health Organization?

The World Health Organization (WHO) was founded on the 7 April 1948, a date celebrated annually as World Health Day. As an agency of the United Nations, the organisation has developed into an international establishment which involves 150 countries and employs 7,000 people. WHO is responsible for the World Health Report and the World Health Survey. Since its establishment it has played a fundamental role in the eradication of smallpox, and currently prioritises diseases including HIV/AIDs, Ebola, Malaria and Tuberculosis. 

WHO takes a global responsibility for the co-ordinated management and handling of outbreaks of new and dangerous health threats – like the Covid-19 coronavirus.

The current WHO director general is Dr Tedros Adhamon Ghebreyesus, elected for a five year term in 2017. Prior to his election, Dr Tedros served as Ethiopia’s minister for foreign affairs. He also served as minister of Health for Ethiopia from 2005-2012 where he led extensive reform to the country’s health system.

WHO’s handling of the global pandemic has been criticised by US president Donald Trump, who announced in April that the US will no longer contribute to funding the agency.

Grace Mainwaring and Martin Belam

Saudi Arabia is this year’s chair of the G20, and the main summit of world leaders is still scheduled to be held in Riyadh in November. In the run-up to that event specialist ministers meet to prepare parts of the final communique.

The US is the second largest contributor to the WHO, and the sudden suspension of US payments for up to 90 days has infuriated other nations’ health ministries, while easing some of the pressure on China over its handling of a crisis.

The Trump administration has been contacted for comment.