Defunding the WHO Mid-Pandemic Is Lunacy | Opinion

President Donald Trump has legitimate reasons to be angry the World Health Organization didn't stop the COVID-19 crisis. We all do.

Imagine what would have happened last December, when the first evidence of the coronavirus crisis emerged in China, if the WHO had a robust pathogen surveillance system in place? When the first tripwire of an outbreak was hit, a fully resourced WHO expert task force would have flown directly to Wuhan, paying scant attention to any objections from Beijing. Using their emergency powers, they would have immediately exposed the Chinese cover-up and worked aggressively with local authorities to squelch the outbreak.

If the virus still spread, the WHO would have led governments around the world in a coordinated effort to stop it. Its coordinated and consistent global messaging would have countered in real time the dangerous misinformation coming from national leaders in Beijing, Washington and Brasilia. In that alternate world, over a hundred thousand people who have now died from COVID-19 would still be alive and the WHO would now be studying lessons learned to be better prepared for the next pandemic.

Some people might think we already have a World Health Organization empowered to do whatever it takes to protect us in this way. But we don't.

Established in 1948, the WHO is, according to its founding document, "the directing and coordinating authority on international health work."

On paper.

In reality, the organization is underfunded, understaffed and under-empowered by states. It can't make countries do much of anything and doesn't control how most of its own budget is spent. It doesn't have the power to force nations to accept emergency response teams, reliably report on outbreaks or even pay their dues. It doesn't have anything approximating an ability to forcefully direct a coordinated global response to a deadly pathogenic crisis.

That's why, for all our sakes, we need a stronger WHO, not a weaker one. It's why cutting off U.S. funding to the WHO in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century is the height of self-defeating lunacy.

Imperfect as it is, the World Health Organization remains the international organization most essential to helping us through this crisis. Viruses do not respect national borders, and no country can expect to get through this crisis on its own. The virus will incubate wherever it is given free rein.

But saying that we need the WHO now more than ever does not at all mean we can't be critical of it. While we're at it, we should also be rigorously examining the massive failures of China, the United States and others.

Just as we wouldn't imagine having a plane crash and not immediately trying to figure out what happened, we can't let the COVID-19 crisis unfold without urgently understanding how our systems have so spectacularly failed.

There are plenty of fingers to point, and we must thoughtfully point them now, at all of us, for our own good. For all we know, a new and even worse pandemic could begin even before we have overcome this one.

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing of the White House Coronavirus Task Force on April 14 in Washington, D.C. Trump announced that he is halting funding for the World Health Organization. Alex Wong/Getty

Whatever the origins of the outbreak, including the possibility of an accidental leak from the Chinese virology lab in Wuhan, China's dangerous and ongoing information suppression activities are the foundations of this crisis. We have to find out fast where and how this outbreak began.

The WHO could have raised hell when China denied access to WHO experts for those critical early weeks, did not need to initially parrot Chinese propaganda and could certainly have sounded the alarm earlier. We have to ask how we can help the WHO do better.

The United States had all the information it needed by January to mount a massive response, but Trump actively undermined the findings of his own intelligence and health officials. Worse, he passed misinformation to the American people that potentially led to many thousands of deaths. We've got to ask why this happened.

Until we get to the bottom of all these failures and work to fix them, we remain dangerously susceptible to the next pandemic.

We are all on the same plane with a shared interest in not letting it crash. Suspending funding to the WHO is like shooting the pilot.

Rather than undermining the WHO at this time of intense need, the United States should be working closely with allies and partners around the world to strengthen the WHO and enhance collaboration for our mutual benefit.

Let's work together to safely land the plane.

Jamie Metzl is a member of the World Health Organization international advisory committee on human genome editing, a former National Security Council official and author of Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity. Follow him on Twitter @jamiemetzl.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.