AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The World Health Organization said today that it is reviewing its finances and looking to fill gaps after President Trump announced he is suspending payments to the WHO. Trump is blaming the WHO for mismanaging the global response to the coronavirus pandemic. He also, without producing any evidence, accuses the global health agency of conspiring with Beijing to cover up the extent of the initial outbreak. The U.S. is the largest donor to the WHO.
And joining me now to talk about all of this is NPR global health correspondent Jason Beaubien.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: So what's been the WHO's reaction to all this - this announcement from President Trump?
BEAUBIEN: I think it's fair to say shock, disbelief. Backers of the WHO called the move lunacy in the midst of the worst global pandemic in a hundred years. The head of emergencies for the WHO, Mike Ryan, in a press conference today from Geneva - he just gave this spirited defense of the WHO's response to this crisis.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
MIKE RYAN: In the first weeks of January, WHO was very, very clear. We alerted the world in January the 5. Systems around the world, including the U.S., began to activate their incident management systems on January the 6.
BEAUBIEN: One of the things that Trump said was part of the WHO's mishandling of this whole thing was the WHO not supporting a blanket ban on travel to and from China. So first of all, the WHO almost always lobbies against these kind of travel restrictions. They're a U.N. agency. They're governed by their 194 member states, and they don't want to take action that targets one of their members. And Ryan tried to explain the WHO's role on any travel ban.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
RYAN: The imposition of flight restrictions by countries is the sovereign right of any member state. WHO does not control the law on this. WHO's only function is to challenge member states who put in place restrictions to ensure that they have a public health justification.
BEAUBIEN: And to make public what that health justification is for the travel ban.
CHANG: Well, let's talk a little bit more about that. I mean, can you explain exactly what is the role of the WHO? Like, when there's a deadly outbreak, what power does the agency have to say, contain this virus in China? Could it really have done that much?
BEAUBIEN: It is really interesting. They don't have any absolute power at all. If a country doesn't want them to come in, the WHO doesn't have a role to play. In this case, if China doesn't want to share data or information, there's not a lot the WHO can do about it.
You know, they're part of the U.N. bureaucracy. Their role is to support and advise member countries. They provide technical advice. They try to get researchers from all over the world to coordinate their research. You know, right now, they're working with the World Food Program to ferry medical supplies to countries in Africa that have hardly any PPE.
But again, they work at the will of their member countries. So President Trump is denouncing the WHO for not coming down hard on China, for undercounting cases or downplaying its death rate. But that's not their role.
CHANG: Interesting. Well, the U.S. is the biggest source of funding for the WHO, as we've said. So how dramatic do you think the impact of cutting that funding's going to be?
BEAUBIEN: It could be pretty dramatic. You know, the U.S. is the largest donor to the WHO - provides over 20% of the agency's funding. The WHO, more than any other agency in the world, has been in the midst of this epic battle against COVID-19. You know, and that battle - there's nowhere near over. The WHO is very concerned about how the coronavirus could play out in Africa and India and other low-income settings. You know, they're trying to get additional medical supplies and protective equipment into many of these countries, and that takes resources. So yeah, the U.S. pulling funding - it's a huge blow.
CHANG: That is NPR global health correspondent Jason Beaubien.
Thank you, Jason.
BEAUBIEN: You're welcome, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.