WHO Needs a Makeover That Only the United States Can Provide

WHO Needs a Makeover That Only the United States Can Provide
(Christopher Black/WHO via AP)
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This week, the World Health Organization convened a special session to address its much-criticized response to COVID-19.  

There's no question that WHO has made serious mistakes over the past 10 months. It hesitated to declare a pandemic until mid-March — long after the disease had spread throughout Europe and North America. It initially opposed international travel restrictions. It repeatedly minimized the danger of human-to-human transmission. The list goes on.

The question, rather, is what to do now?

The Trump administration thinks WHO is broken beyond repair — so it wants to cut off funding and withdraw. That frustration is certainly understandable. But leaving the organization would prove counterproductive. Real reform is possible, but it requires long-term U.S. engagement. 

The United Nations founded WHO in 1948 to coordinate the global response to disease outbreaks. In its early years, it boasted some significant achievements, most notably the eradication of smallpox in 1978.  

But in recent decades, WHO has drifted away from its original mission and started concentrating on so-called "social determinants of health," including climate change, education policy, and lifestyle issues such as diet and alcohol. It has even devoted time and effort to combatting video game addictions.  

Spending hours a day playing Xbox admittedly isn't healthy — but WHO shirking its original call of duty is a far bigger problem. Every dollar wasted on peripheral issues is a dollar that's not spent combatting global killers like malaria, COVID-19, or other emerging contagious diseases.  

WHO has also made ideological forays into regulatory and trade policy, urging developing countries to override medicine patents and to reject their inclusion in any new free-trade agreements. And it hosts an annual "Fair Pricing Forum," which often descends into a tirade against biotech companies instead of a constructive discussion about the underlying economics of drug development.

Such actions compromise WHO's impartiality and needlessly bog the organization down in ideological disputes that undermine its international credibility.

When COVID-19 emerged, the agency's failures became readily apparent. With just 18 percent of its budget dedicated to pandemics and health emergencies, WHO was ill-prepared to manage the outbreak. And because the organization can only utilize data from member countries, it misguidedly promoted premature findings from Chinese officials that there was "no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission."

The United States can fix this unsatisfactory situation. America is the largest contributor to WHO, covering nearly a quarter of the agency's core budget. So it has real leverage to demand change from within WHO.

The Trump administration has already called for urgent reforms, including an independent inquiry into the agency's pandemic response and the extent of Chinese influence. And no matter who wins the November election, the next president could urge WHO to rein in its mission creep, including its activism against intellectual property rights. Here in particular there is bipartisan consensus about their importance for innovation and America's future prosperity.

But if the United States throws in the towel, those reforms won't happen. Other countries — including the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Japan — want science-based, transparent policymaking at WHO. But none have the authority of the United States.

U.S. withdrawal would cripple the organization's capabilities, since its contributions disproportionately fund influenza surveillance, vaccine development, and disease eradication. The loss of U.S. funding would also make it tougher for WHO to resist politicization. China would surely exploit the vacuum left by America to increase its own influence.

For all its flaws, WHO is still the only organization with the legitimacy and reach to coordinate a response against pandemics. A more focused, less politicized WHO is vital for stopping the next pandemic. But we'll never achieve the needed reforms if the United States withdraws.  

Philip Stevens is Executive Director of Geneva Network, a research and advocacy organization focusing on international innovation, trade, and development policy.

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