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How much does the U.S. give to WHO and what does it do?

President Trump has criticized the World Health Organization's response to COVID-19 and said he would halt U.S. funding.

President Donald Trump said this week that he's stopping U.S. funding to the World Health Organization as his administration looks into WHO's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trump said his decision is based on his belief that the coronavirus outbreak could have been contained at its source and that the U.N. health agency should have been tougher on reports coming out of China. 

However, WHO's funding goes toward much more than coronavirus and other epidemic responses. With the U.S. as the country contributing the most to the organization, WHO faces losing tens of millions of dollars for programs like polio vaccine research and promoting childhood nutrition.

Here are answers to some common questions about WHO and its funding from the U.S.

What does the World Health Organization do?

The organization was founded after World War II and is part of the United Nations. WHO has about 7,000 workers at more than 150 offices around the world.

Its basic mission statement is working to achieve better health for all by fighting communicable diseases (the flu, HIV) and noncommunicable diseases (cancer, heart disease), providing resources for families and children, coordinating efforts to create new medicines and vaccines and working with organizations to promote healthy air, food and water.

During global emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic, WHO aims to be a central command center for member countries to coordinate information and medical responses. WHO has 194 member countries.

Who funds WHO?

With a budget of $4.8 billion for 2020 and 2021, WHO's funding comes from annual donations from members states -- about 51 percent, according to a 2018-2019 report.

Membership dues (assessed fees) are calculated based on a country's population and wealth. Member nations also contribute voluntary funds that can differ in amount every year. 

The U.S. is the largest contributor to WHO. 

How much does the U.S. give to WHO?

In 2018-19, the U.S. contributed nearly $900 million to WHO's budget. That was about one-fifth of the organization's $4.4 billion budget for those years.

$237 million of that is assessed fees. During those years, the other $656 million or so pledged by the U.S. went to specific programs like polio eradication, vaccine research, nutrition services, tuberculosis and HIV research and outbreak control and prevention.

As of March 31, 2020, the U.S. still owes about $198 million in assessed fees to WHO, according to an account statement from the organization listing every country's status.

How is U.S. money used at WHO?

As WHO's top donor, U.S. contributions went to 10 main areas

  • Polio eradication
  • Outbreak and emergency response
  • Vaccine and preventable diseases research
  • HIV and hepatitis research
  • Tuberculosis research
  • National health, emergency preparedness and International Health Regulations
  • Infectious hazard management
  • Emergency operations
  • Family, maternal and child health
  • Accessibility of medicines and health technology

According to the New York Times, just 2.97 percent of the country's funds go toward emergency operations and about 2.33 percent go to outbreak preparedness.

Why are President Trump and others criticizing the organization?

The president and his administration have said WHO wasn't quick enough in its response to COVID-19. And, President Trump has accused the WHO of not being critical enough of China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.

Outside of the White House, others have also criticized the WHO's response, saying it trusts the Chinese government too much. An article from Feb. 2, 2020, in the New York Times said the Chinese government put secrecy and "order" ahead of rapid response to avoid public and political embarrassment.

And, just this week, The Atlantic shared that even when COVID-19 was spreadly rapidly in Wuhan, the WHO was "getting its information from the same Chinese authorities who were misinforming their own public, and then offering it to the world."

What's the timeline, as it relates to the WHO and COVID-19?

According to NPR, the World Health Organization first began reporting some form of illness on Jan. 5 in Wuhan, China, and released a statement identifying the culprit as a novel coronavirus on Jan. 9.

On Jan. 23, the organization's leader said it was too early to declare the new coronavirus a public health emergency that concerned the whole globe. But, WHO made clear there was an emergency within China, and it could become much more widespread.

A day later, President Donald Trump tweeted that China had been working hard to contain the coronavirus and that the U.S. appreciated China's "efforts and transparency."

By Jan. 29, Dr Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, said it was time for the world to be on alert with regard to COVID-19. The next day, NPR reports President Trump told supporters at an Iowa rally that the U.S. was working closely with China to prevent the spread of the virus.

By early February, the WHO was telling global leaders that the virus could create more upheaval than a terrorist attack.

On Feb. 28, the WHO raised the COVID-19 threat level to "very high." And, on March 11, the World Health Organization described COVID-19 as a pandemic.

What does a U.S. funding freeze mean?

Beyond the WHO not getting any more contributions from the U.S., the answer is unclear. President Trump said a review of the organization could take two to three months. No details from the White House have been released on how the funding halt will be done.

Also, it's unclear if President Trump even has the authority to stop funding going to an international organization like the WHO. It's possible that money already given or committed to the WHO can't be taken away, Lawrence Gostin told NPR

Gostin is a law professor and director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law. He said pulling funds from the WHO would be "disastrous." 

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres responded to Trump's announcement by saying now is not the time to end financial support for the WHO, saying the organization is "absolutely critical" to the global effort in fighting coronavirus.

The European Union said Trump had "no reason" to halt funds and that the WHO is "needed more than ever" to combat the pandemic.

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