What Does WHO Do? Trump Terminates Relationship With World Health Organization Over Coronavirus Response

On Friday, President Donald Trump announced America would cut ties with the World Health Organization after weeks of criticism of the agency's handling of the new coronavirus outbreak.

The World Health Organization (WHO) was established in 1948, about three years after diplomats discussed the need for a global health organization during the formation of the United Nations. As the directing and coordinating authority on international health within the U.N. system, the organization is tasked with working with 194 member states to combat diseases and improve public health around the world.

Dr. Michael Ryan, director of WHO's Health Emergencies Programme, described WHO's mission during a press conference in April as "to establish global standards and to give strong advice to countries regarding public health measures."

During health emergencies, such as the coronavirus pandemic, the WHO is responsible for offering support to member states, as well as, guidance on the best ways to respond. From the early days of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, WHO shared information about cases, deaths and the characteristics of the virus, such as who was most at risk and its transmissibility.

world health organization purpose funding cut
A photo taken on March 11 shows World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attending a press briefing on COVID-19 at the WHO headquarters in Geneva. On Friday, President Donald Trump announced the United States was cutting ties with the World Health Organization. Fabrice COFFRINI/AFP/Getty

WHO heavily praised China for its transparency about the virus and even after countries pushed for an investigation, officials stood by their response. Trump, a recent vocal critic of the organization, offered a starkly different narrative: that WHO bowed to Chinese pressure, failed to make the proper recommendations for limiting the spread of COVID-19 and therefore allowed the virus to become the pandemic it is today.

"China has total control over the World Health Organization," Trump said on Friday. "We have detailed the reforms that [The WHO] must make and engaged with them directly but they have refused to act."

On May 18, Trump sent a letter to Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, informing him that he was considering a permanent funding freeze. The letter highlighted a number of grievances and gave the WHO 30 days to commit to "major substantive improvements." If that commitment could not be made, Trump said he would make the temporary funding freeze permanent and reconsider America's membership in the organization.

A little over a week later, Trump announced he was terminating the relationship with WHO because they "have failed to make the requested and greatly needed reforms." America is a major funder of the organization, paying about $450 million per year to it, and Trump said the money will be redirected to "other worldwide and deserving urgent global public health needs."

"The death and destruction caused by this is incalculable," Trump said. "We must have answers, not only for us but for the rest of the world."

Newsweek reached out to the World Health Organization for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.

Along with the work WHO does during a public health crisis, it also is responsible for improving access to essential health services, medicines and products, promote mental health and address noncommunicable disease prevention. This is often done through education initiatives and making recommendations for healthy policy.

WHO's member states make up the World Health Assembly, which sets WHO policy. It's funded by dues and voluntary contributions from member states and nonprofit groups.

Over the years, WHO has received a mix of praise and criticism and logged both successes, such as a child vaccination program that contributed to the eradication of smallpox, and perceived failures, including a delayed response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014.