Top officials of the World Health Organization on Thursday slammed "unacceptable" comments made by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who alleged that China had co-opted the WHO.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the claims made Tuesday in London by Pompeo that China had "co-opted international institutions like the World Health Organization" were untrue and a distraction from the global coronavirus pandemic response.
"The comments are untrue and unacceptable and without any foundation for that matter," Tedros said at a news briefing from the United Nations agency's Gevena headquarters on Thursday. "WHO will not be distracted by these comments and we don't want the international community also to be distracted."
Tedros has repeatedly defended the WHO against criticism of its response to the coronavirus. U.S. President Donald Trump and others have alleged the U.N. health agency has a favorable relationship with China, where the virus emerged at the end of 2019. Tedros reiterated comments on Thursday that the politicization of the pandemic is one of the greatest threats to the global response.
"I feel the need to say something as an American, as a proud WHO employee," Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, who was born in New York state and is head of the WHO's emerging diseases and zoonosis unit, added. "I have never been more proud to be WHO. ... We are firmly focused on saving lives, as Dr. Tedros has said, firmly focused. We will not be distracted."
Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO's health emergencies program, said "many of us have worked seven days a week, 24 hours a day for the last seven months," adding that WHO staff are sent "into harm's way" everyday. He added that uplifting the morale of WHO staff and all U.N. staff is critical.
"None of us are perfect," he said. "But we all serve. We serve to save lives. ... We are proud, proud to be WHO and we will remain so. And we will serve the vulnerable people of the world regardless of what is said about us."
Pompeo had previously accused China of working with the WHO to downplay the growing coronavirus crisis. On Tuesday, he said the entire world "needs to work together to ensure that every country, including China, behaves in the international system in ways that are appropriate, consistent with the international order."
Standing beside his U.K. counterpart Dominic Raab, Pompeo continued: "You can't go make claims for maritime regions that you have no lawful claim to. You can't threaten countries and bully them in the Himalayas. You can't engage in cover-ups and co-opt international institutions like the World Health Organization."
It's not the first time Pompeo said China has "co-opted" the WHO.
"When you have an incident in your country that could potentially lead to a pandemic, you have an obligation to report that and to allow others to come in and help you be transparent about it. The Chinese Communist Party chose differently. They co-opted the World Health Organization to achieve that cover-up," Pompeo said during a virtual event with The Hill on July 15.
The U.S. is experiencing the worst Covid-19 outbreak in the world so far and Trump has continually placed the blame for the pandemic on the WHO and China's inability to contain the virus when it emerged in the city of Wuhan nearly seven months ago. Earlier this month, the Trump administration submitted its notice to withdraw from the WHO by July 6, 2021, a senior administration official confirmed to CNBC.
"China has total control over the World Health Organization despite only paying $40 million per year compared to what the United States has been paying, which is approximately $450 million a year," Trump said at a news conference on May 29 in the White House Rose Garden.
In June, global health specialists testified before Congress that the Trump administration's decision to cut ties with the WHO will ultimately hurt U.S. interests and empower international rivals.
The U.S. is the largest funder of the WHO and most of the money goes toward the agency's emergencies program, designed to assist the world's most vulnerable populations, WHO officials have previously said. They said the loss of support from the U.S., if the nation does in fact withdraw from the WHO and cut funding, could lead to loss of life.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.