In a statement earlier this week, the Trump administration confirmed they do not plan on joining the global effort to develop, manufacture and distribute a coronavirus vaccine because the World Health Organization is involved. This follows announcements earlier this year that the United States is planning on terminating its diplomatic relationship with the WHO altogether.
The WHO is made up of 194 member states across six regions, and is instrumental in directing and coordinating international health work. They partner with the United Nations, international organizations and individual research institutions to support health initiatives, national health policies and strategies. They are to be partially credited with the eradication of smallpox, the reduction in polio cases and leading the charge against outbreaks like Ebola and dengue.
The organization is funded by several sources, including international organizations, private donors, member states and the United Nations. Member states of the WHO are each required to pay dues, which are calculated relative to each country’s wealth and population. The United States has historically been one of the organization’s largest donors, making up 14.67 percent of all voluntary contributions given globally.
As a result, the WHO has been criticized relentlessly due to certain member states having disproportionate financial and political influences within the organization. Trump has been vocal in his belief that Chinese officials pressured the WHO into ignoring their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, consequently misleading global figures and causing international economic hardship.
Regardless, the possibility of the U.S. terminating its relationship with the WHO and refusing to partake in the development, manufacturing and distribution of a coronavirus vaccine will have devastating international effects. After losing a significant amount of its funding, the WHO’s additional health programs will be significantly weakened, such as the movement to stop the rapid spread of HIV or drug-resistant tuberculosis. Global health experts also argue that by refusing to work with the WHO, the move will also effectively kill any international coordination on the COVID-19 response, prolonging the pandemic even further.
The United States has long been a strong influence in global health, providing extensive health expertise to WHO advisory committees and the executive board. It’s almost certain that leaving the organization, or even sitting out of the vaccine development and distribution, would mean giving up leadership amid the COVID-19 crisis. The move would put the health and safety of Americans at further risk.
The WHO has spent years establishing community programs and spearheading health initiatives and programs across the globe. The refusal to work with the WHO and assist in the COVID-19 pandemic response is not only selfish, but further endangers millions of lives. Given the inevitable movement of individuals internationally, to effectively put an end to this pandemic, the movement to develop a vaccine in the next few months must span internationally as well. Additionally, it’s important for the administration to keep in mind that an economic recovery for the United States will require economic recovery elsewhere.
By remaining involved in the process, the administration will make clear that the health of Americans is a major priority, and lead to better health outcomes and lower costs — which is the least that we should be asking for during a pandemic.