The World Health Organisation (WHO) has bowed to calls from most of its member states to launch an independent investigation into its management of the international response to the coronavirus.
The move comes after weeks of finger-pointing between the US and China over the pandemic, which has killed more than 300,000 people and devastated the global economy.
The “comprehensive evaluation,” sought by a coalition of African, European and other countries, is intended to review “lessons learned” from WHO’s coordination of the global response to Covid-19.
But it would stop short of examining contentious issues such as the origins of the new coronavirus.
US President Donald Trump has claimed he has proof suggesting the coronavirus originated in a lab in China, while the scientific community has insisted all evidence to date shows the virus likely jumped into humans from animals.
In Washington on Monday, Mr Trump criticised the WHO for having done “a very sad job” and said he was considering whether to cut the annual US funding of the body from $450 million (£368 million) a year to $40 million (£32.8 million).
“They gave us a lot of bad advice, terrible advice,” he said. “They were wrong so much, always on the side of China.”
Later on Monday, Mr Trump tweeted a letter he had sent WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in which the president said “the only way forward” was if WHO “can actually demonstrate independence from China”.
Mr Trump said unless WHO committed to “substantive improvements over the next 30 days” he would make his temporary suspension of US funding permanent.
WHO’s normally bureaucratic annual assembly this week has been overshadowed by mutual recriminations and political sniping between the US and China.
Mr Trump has repeatedly attacked WHO, claiming it helped China conceal the extent of the coronavirus pandemic in its early stages. Several Republican politicians have called on Dr Tedros to resign.
US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said on Monday it was time to be frank about why Covid-19 has “spun out of control”.
“There was a failure by this organisation to obtain the information that the world needed and that failure cost many lives,” Mr Azar said.
Speaking hours after Chinese President Xi Jinping announced China would provide $2 billion (£1.64 billion) to help respond to the outbreak and its economic fallout, Mr Azar said the US had allocated $9 billion (£7.38 billion) to coronavirus containment efforts around the world.
Dr Tedros said he would launch an independent evaluation of WHO’s response “at the earliest appropriate moment” — alluding to findings published on Monday in a first report by an oversight advisory body commissioned to look into WHO’s response.
The 11-page report raised questions such as whether WHO’s warning system for alerting the world to outbreaks is adequate, and suggested member states might need to “reassess” WHO’s role in providing travel advice to countries.
In his opening remarks at the WHO meeting, Dr Tedros held firm and sought to focus on the bigger troubles posed by the outbreak, saying “we have been humbled by this very small microbe”.
“This contagion exposes the fault lines, inequalities, injustices and contradictions of our modern world,” Dr Tedros said. “And geopolitical divisions have been thrown into sharp relief.”
China, meanwhile, sought to divert attention to its renewed efforts to slow the coronavirus pandemic, with Mr Xi announcing the $2 billion outlay over two years to fight it. Last year, China donated some $86 million (£70.48 million) to the WHO.
US National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot characterised China’s newly announced contribution as “a token to distract from calls from a growing number of nations demanding accountability for the Chinese government’s failure to meet its obligations”.
He said since China was “the source” of the outbreak, it had “a special responsibility to pay more and give more”.
Mr Xi insisted China had acted with “openness, transparency and responsibility” when the epidemic was detected in Wuhan.
He said China had give all relevant outbreak data to WHO and other countries, including the virus’s genetic sequence, “in a most timely fashion”.
Mr Xi said that in recent weeks China had dispatched medical supplies to more than 50 African countries and that 46 Chinese medical teams were currently on the continent helping local officials.
Other world leaders including the presidents of France, South Korea and South Africa and Germany’s chancellor were also piped in to throw their support to the WHO, which has been put on the defensive from a Trump administration that has blamed it for mishandling the outbreak and showering excessive praise on China’s response.
The European Union and others staked out a middle ground.
Mr Xi has said China supports the idea of a comprehensive review of the global response to Covid-19 and that it should be “based on science and professionalism led by WHO, and conducted in an objective and impartial manner”.