(Bloomberg) -- Forced into the spotlight by the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization has been buffeted by U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat to cut off vital funding.
Trump says the agency flubbed its early response to the outbreak while allowing China to engineer an initial coverup. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has defended the WHO, saying it reacted quickly and appropriately.
The following is an edited version of excerpts from a May 3 interview with WHO Chief of Staff Bernhard Schwartlander, health emergencies program director Mike Ryan, and Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead officer on Covid-19.
BLOOMBERG: I understand it’s the WHO’s position not to criticize nations publicly. Does the WHO have tough discussions in private, for example when a country’s leader says something inappropriate for a health situation?
SCHWARTLANDER: You can be assured that there are very tough discussions at times. These discussions have only one objective, and the objective is to move the agenda forward. Our sole objective is to make sure the right decisions are taken and not that somebody is blamed or not blamed. Sometimes these discussions are very tough, but they are always respectful.BLOOMBERG: Can you talk about whether any of these negotiations with China were falling into the tough category?
VAN KERKHOVE: From the technical level, in terms of scientists, you can judge all of those as tough. Because as scientists, epidemiologists, clinicians, virologists, we always want to know more information, especially when something is new. Not tough in the sense of politically tough, but in the sense where we’re challenging each other.
BLOOMBERG: What about the questions that do have political undertones, like the effort to get a team into China. Were you negotiating with China who would be on that team? Was that a tough negotiation?
SCHWARTLANDER: We kept a respectful engagement, we were able to share our arguments and the mission came to China in a fairly short period of time, and it was a spectacular setup.
VAN KERKHOVE: Our ability as WHO to bring people together is unlike that of any other organization on the planet. That exchange of knowledge, that exchange of information is faster than any peer-reviewed publication, any report that can be written, any database that can be generated. That is something I am in particular proud of the WHO being able to do because that bypasses any politics, any obstacles and challenges, because we all have the same goal.
BLOOMBERG: In the first convening of the Emergency Committee, what information was missing at that point? What did you need that you weren’t able to get?
VAN KERKHOVE: In the situation with China, we were asking these questions about, what is the extent of the infection, is it related to this market, is there a zoonotic event that had happened, and how much human-to-human transmission is occurring. They were coming back to us with some information. It wasn’t complete, but that meant that the investigations were underway. Sometimes, unfortunately, that takes some time.
BLOOMBERG: Would you prefer if the legal framework of WHO made it a more independent, more dynamic organization? Would you prefer that legal framework be changed?
RYAN: You’re asking me, do I want more resources? I do, but that’s not my choice and not my decision. There are very powerful nations around the world who can further empower that, and they can decide how they wish to do that.
It’s going to take a big, adult conversation. It’s going to require careful consideration and require people coming together, not staying apart. It’s going to involve compromise, dialogue, discussion, consensus, and I’m just wondering whether those words have lost their meaning in the world we live in right now.
SCHWARTLANDER: There’s nothing more powerful than the nations of the world coming together and agreeing, and the downside of that is there’s nothing more annoying than that a potentially very small number of nations can block such an agreement to go forward. It’s easy in a moment of frustration to say we need to throw all of this out and do something completely different because that’s what gives us more security and safety. But it may come at huge costs because it also may cut down the opportunity for consensus.
BLOOMBERG: What’s the impact of the U.S. threat or decisions to suspend funding? Is there any positive? Is this a wake-up call for other nations? Would it be better if the budget of the WHO was more geographically diverse and not so voluntary?
SCHWARTLANDER: Especially in times of Covid, we can only win this round if we are together. There’s no way we can push this virus back effectively and for good unless we have everybody together, we have the U.S. as a partner, within the context of everybody working. That’s the most important.
RYAN: We have a deep and long-lasting relationship with the United States. Our relationship covers many things. We are partners in polio eradication, we’re partners in dealing with the scourge of tuberculosis, antimicrobial resistance and other things around the world. The scientific collaboration with CDC, NIH, FDA is absolutely vital to the world. I don’t know if the citizens of the U.S. realize just how important those institutions are.
We want and we need a strong, scientific, strategic and operational partnership with the United States and its institutions because that’s important for protecting the world. It’s important for protecting Americans. It is part of extended U.S. diplomacy.
Any suspension of funding is ultimately going to have an impact on the bottom line. And we do hope that others may be able to support us in delivering those services, but the preference is clearly to have our strongest, longest-lasting, most important partner with us in the front-line, fighting these diseases and working together to to keep the world safe and keep Americans safe.
So that’s where I come from philosophically, and it doesn’t mean we don’t have differences of opinion and differences in strategic approaches and we don’t have robust engagement. I’ve probably had more scraps with CDC people than I’ve ever had with anybody else. But that comes from people who are laser-focused on doing good, laser-focused on getting the job done.
We need to look at what we’re all trying to achieve here, and not collectively descend into these kinds of very destructive arguments. If WHO needs to be strengthened, then strengthen WHO. If WHO needs to be reformed, then reform WHO. But let’s get on and focus on what we need to do.
(Updates to extend quote in third statement by Schwartlander)
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