Fauci signals new chapter in US relations with the WHO

The logo and building of the WHO headquarters, 15 April 2020. Credit: Keystone

US’ top medical adviser Dr Anthony Fauci on Thursday announced the country’s renewed support for the World Health Organization (WHO), including its intention to join its vaccine-sharing scheme, Covax.

Fauci led a delegation taking part in the WHO executive board meeting, the agency’s actioning body of the decisions and policies adopted by the World Health Assembly, in one of the first acts under Joe Biden’s presidency.

“President Biden will issue a directive later today which will include the intent of the United States to join Covax and support the ACT-Accelerator to advance multilateral efforts for Covid-19 vaccine, therapeutic, and diagnostic distribution, equitable access, and research and development,” Fauci told the board.

As well as formally retracting its notice of withdrawal from the organisation, the new US administration will also cease its drawdown of US staff seconded to the WHO as well as fulfill its financial obligations, after former president Donald Trump cut off funding to the organisation last year.

Read also: Fauci to lead US delegation at WHO as Biden pledges to restore ties

Fauci said the US would also be revoking the Mexico City Policy, also known as “the global gag rule”, that bans form NGOs receiving US aid from contributing to abortion-related activities. In place since 1984, Democrat presidents have successively revoked it while Republican administrations have reinstated it.

Screenshot of Dr Anthony Fauci addressing the WHO executive board

In a speech that signalled the US’ readiness to mend ties and start a new chapter in relations with the organisation, Fauci said the country intends “to be fully engaged in advancing global health” and in supporting multilateral efforts in fights in the global pandemic.

“The United States will also work with the WHO and Member States to counter the erosion of major gains in global health that we have achieved through decades of research, collaboration and investments in health and health security, including in HIV/AIDS, food security, malaria, and epidemic preparedness,” he said.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus welcomed the US back to the table, saying “this is a good day for WHO and a good day for global health.” He added: “My brother [in reference to Fauci], “the role of the United States, its role, global role is very, very crucial.”

Covid-19 has cost 400,000 lives in the US over the past year, with the virus tallying more virus-related deaths than any country in the world. In a bid to restore some semblance of normality the president announced several actions on his first day in office to fight the virus, including measures to provide economic relief to working families. He also wants to speed up the vaccine roll-out with the aim of vaccinating at least 100m people in his first 100 days in office.

In his inauguration speech on Wednesday, Biden said: “We’re entering what may be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus and must set aside politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation.”

The US joining Covax will come as a much needed boost for the programme, a 190-country international initiative which pools funds together to buy vaccines so as to distribute them fairly among countries in need. In a speech on Monday, Dr Tedros rebuked wealthy nations for hoarding vaccine supplies and failing in efforts to distribute them more fairly to poorer countries.

Speaking on the opening day of the executive board, the WHO chief said that “more than 39 million doses of vaccine have now been administered in at least 49 higher-income countries. Just 25 doses have been given in one lowest-income country.”

The world is “on the brink of a catastrophe and moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with the lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries,” he said.