In one of his first acts after taking office on Jan. 20, President Joe Biden announced the United States was rejoining the World Health Organization (WHO).
The following morning at 4 a.m., Dr. Anthony Fauci used Zoom in Washington to assure WHO officials in Geneva that the U.S. was looking forward to working with the United Nation’s body on a variety of global health issues.
Both Donald Trump’s withdrawal from WHO and Biden’s recommitment to the organization took place in the long shadow cast by the COVID-19 pandemic. It was WHO’s statement from mid-January 2020 that COVID-19 could not be transmitted from human to human and the organization’s close ties to China, the source of the virus, that prompted Trump to freeze U.S. funding for WHO and announce on May 29 that the U.S. would terminate its membership. WHO also condemned Trump’s decision to slap a travel ban on China, a move later credited by Fauci with saving American lives.
The U.S.-China-WHO Axis
China’s responsibility for the coronavirus promises to complicate cooperation between WHO and the Biden administration, as well as between Washington and Beijing.
A few days before he left office, Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state, released a report saying the U.S. had obtained new evidence that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) became ill in the fall of 2019, before the first identified case of the disease in the surrounding city, with symptoms that were consistent with either COVID-19 or common seasonal illnesses.
Pompeo said in a statement that this contradicted official Chinese reports that none of the staff at the institute had contracted COVID-19 or related viruses. Pompeo urged a WHO team sent to China to investigate the origin of the disease to “press the government of China” on this “new information.”
“Beijing continues today to withhold vital information that scientists need to protect the world from this deadly virus, and the next one,” said Pompeo.
A team of 10 WHO researchers arrived in China in mid-January. Composed of Chinese and international researchers, the team was only allowed to enter the country after protracted haggling with Chinese officials. According to press reports, the team is focusing its investigation on two theories: first, the virus jumped across species in nature through intermediaries such as pangolins, bats, or minks, or second, it escaped the WIV, as the Trump State Department suggested.
In February 2020, a separate WHO team went to China and was so effusive in its praise of how Chinese authorities had handled the virus that questions still remain about how objective the new team will be in reaching its conclusions.
Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called on the Chinese government to release data from the earliest days of the outbreak. In a February 13 White House statement aimed as much at WHO as it was at Beijing, Sullivan surprisingly backed up key elements of the Pompeo report. “We have deep concerns about the way in which the early findings of the COVID-19 investigation were communicated and questions about the process used to reach them. It is imperative that this report be independent, with expert findings free from intervention or alteration by the Chinese government,” stated Sullivan.
Biden Memo on China References
Sullivan’s statement notwithstanding, the Biden administration continues to distance itself from all things Trump, including taking down the Pompeo report from the State Department’s website.
Clearly unhappy with Trump’s and Pompeo’s frequent references to the “China virus,’ “China plague,” and “Wuhan virus,” the Biden White House issued a memorandum on January 26 condemning “racism, xenophobia, and intolerance” against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
“The Federal Government must recognize that it has played a role in furthering such xenophobic sentiments through the actions of political leaders, including references to the COVID-19 pandemic by the geographic location of its origin,” the memo noted.
Such geographical references have been a common practice in medicine for decades and have never been associated with ethnic or racial slurs. Medical literature abounds with references to “German measles,” “Spanish flu” (widely thought to have originated in China), and “Lyme disease,” which takes its name from Lyme, Conn., where the full spectrum of the disease was first identified in 1975. Polio was sometimes referred to internationally as the “American disease” because of its prevalence in the U.S. in the middle of the 20th century.
“WHO has been the source of the most harmful misinformation ever on COVID-19: the assertion that there was no human-to-human transmission,” Jane Orient, MD, executive director of the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons, tells Health Care News. “It appears likely that the virus was circulating months before it was acknowledged. A thorough and independent investigation of the virus’s origin is imperative, but unlikely to be done soon, in view of the deep connections between the Chinese regime and WHO, and likely the current administration.”
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D., (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.