WHO faces global call for investigation at general assembly

Amid an intensifying blame game over the World Health Organization‘s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, China’s leader Xi Jinping announced a $2 billion funding package to help tackle the outbreak as he spoke at the organization’s 73rd general assembly on Monday.

“China supports the idea of a global review of the response to Covid-19 after it is brought under control. This should be led by the WHO and conducted in an impartial manner,” Xi said, speaking via a video link.

Xi’s statement came as more than 100 health ministers from around the world prepared to call for an independent evaluation of the WHO’s handling of the virus. It was not clear if Xi’s comments indicated that China would support this measure.

Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech via video at the opening of the World Health Assembly on May 18, 2020. (World Health Organization / AFP - Getty Images)
Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech via video at the opening of the World Health Assembly on May 18, 2020. (World Health Organization / AFP – Getty Images)

The pandemic, which has killed more than 300,000 people worldwide, has triggered a drastic escalation in tension between the United States and China. The WHO has also faced criticism, with some observers saying the agency was at least far too credulous in believing Beijing’s reassurances, which it then amplified uncritically to the wider world.

Last month, President Donald Trump moved to withdraw U.S. funding from the organization, accusing it of being too close to Beijing, not sharing information in a timely manner and covering up for its mistakes.

The move has been met with severe criticism at home and abroad, as WHO officials denied the claims.

NBC News has learned the U.S. will attend the assembly later on Monday.

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In his statement, Xi reiterated Beijing’s official line that China acted with transparency and shared information about the outbreak, which is believed to have originated in the country’s northern Hubei province, in a timely fashion.

President Trump has been Beijing’s chief accuser, but he is not the only one to have alleged that Chinese officials covered up the virus during its early stages and exacerbated its spread into a pandemic.

The WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has also been under scrutiny after he heaped praise on Beijing’s coronavirus response.

The WHO assembly, being held virtually for the first time, is officially focused on international cooperation on vaccines, treatments and testing to fight the virus.

In his opening address, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres called for unity between nations fighting the pandemic as he opened the assembly, saying COVID-19 “must be a wakeup call,” and a historic opportunity to step up research and reduce inequality in access to medical care.

“Either we stand together or we fall apart,” Guterres said.

Ahead of the meeting, WHO’s COVID-19 special envoy, David Nabarro, said he hoped world leaders will delay criticism of each other’s handling of the crisis until after the pandemic is under control.

He also warned that without a unified global plan, the outbreak will only get worse.

“This virus will just come back,” Nabarro told NBC News. “It will come back very loudly, roaring, and it will cause further distress.”

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