More than a dozen U.S. health experts based at the headquarters of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva provided real-time information about the new coronavirus in China last year, according to a new report.
President Donald Trump announced last week that the U.S. would stop providing funding to WHO, because it allegedly "missed the call" by not sounding the alarm "months earlier." Trump, who also accused WHO of being "China-centric," has ramped up his rhetoric against the organization after numerous media reports revealed that the president and his advisers did not head warnings about the emerging pandemic from intelligence agencies, health experts, economists and even top White House aides. The president continued to downplay the threat publicly in an apparent attempt to calm the stock market.
But more than a dozen American doctors, public health experts and researchers, many of whom work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and are detailed to WHO, warned the administration in real time about the outbreak in China as early as last year, according to The Washington Post. Trump-appointed health officials also regularly consulted "at the highest levels" with WHO.
"From the beginning of the outbreak, CDC officials were tracking the disease and consulting with WHO counterparts," The Post reported. "Any information of a sensitive nature about the growing outbreak was and continues to be shared by CDC officials with other U.S. officials in a secure facility located behind the CDC's Emergency Operations Center at its Atlanta headquarters. In the early days of the virus response, those officials included [Health and Human Services] Secretary Alex Azar."
Caitlin Oakley, an HHS spokeswoman, confirmed that the department had 17 members, including 16 from the CDC, who were "working on a variety of programs, including COVID-19" at the WHO.
But Oakley stressed that the experts were not "decision-makers" and "just because you have Americans embedded in WHO providing technical assistance does not change the information you are getting from WHO leadership."
"We have learned now that WHO information was incorrect and relied too heavily on China," she said. ". . . The lack of transparency aided and abided by WHO leadership hampered understanding of the virus and delayed the global response."
Oakley claimed that China "stalled for weeks" when pressed to allow WHO experts to visit early this year, and "WHO never criticized them for the delay and even praised China for its 'transparency.'"
Trump, who has touted his relationship with the Chinese when discussing trade, praised the country for its transparency, as well.
"China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency," the president tweeted on J. 24. "It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!"
Trump later bragged on Fox News in February that China had "handled it professionally" and its experts were "extremely capable."
The president held a conference call with G-7 leaders last Thursday, after which the White House said in a statement that "much of the conversation centered on the lack of transparency and chronic mismanagement of the pandemic by the WHO."
But G-7 leaders roundly issued statements condemning Trump's decision to halt funding, arguing it was more important than ever to support WHO.
French President Emmanuel Macron's administration said he "expressed his support for the WHO and underscored the key role it must play" on the call.
A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she "made clear that the pandemic can only be defeated with a strong and coordinated international response . . . [and] expressed for support for the WHO."
Canada, Japan and the European Union all issued strong statements in support of WHO, too.
The root of Trump's complaints appears to be focused on WHO's statement criticizing his move to partially stop travel from China. WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in February that there was no need to "unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade" to stop the spread. Trump called the statement "one of the most dangerous and costly decisions from the WHO" at a news briefing last week.
"They were very much opposed to what we did," he said. "Fortunately, I was not convinced and suspended travel from China, saving untold numbers of lives. Thousands and thousands of people would have died."
But even after the partial China travel ban, Trump continued to downplay warnings and even sidelined top CDC official Nancy Messonnier after she warned that the public should prepare to work and study from home, in an effort to boost the stock market.
The president declared the coronavirus the "Democrats' new hoax" at a large rally in South Carolina days later.
"During this time, Trump played golf on Jan. 18 and 19, Feb. 1 and 15, and March 7 and 8," USA Today reported. "He hosted rallies on Jan. 9 (Toledo, Ohio); 14 (Milwaukee), 28 (Wildwood, N.J.) and 30 (Des Moines, Iowa), as well as Feb. 10 (Manchester, N.H.), 19 (Phoenix), 20 (Colorado Springs), 21 (Las Vegas) and 28 (Charleston, S.C.)."
Trump declared on March 17 that he knew the situation was dire all along.
"This is a pandemic," he said. "I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic."