US Withdrawal From WHO Will Have Impact on Critical Vaccines
The move will impact research on new vaccines and on cures, many of whom are critical for India
US President Donald Trump has decided to end his country’s relationship with the WHO. This follows a threat earlier in May to cut US funding to the World Health Organisation. President Trump has been speaking against all forms of multilateralism consistently for some time now. His allegation is that these institutions are all weighing in against the US and there is nothing in it for America. He first questioned his country’s support the United Nations and followed this up with an even more surprising threat to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, a group whose members are all very old and consistent US allies. Trump’s skepticism on climate change is more than established and he has withdrawn the US from the Paris accords. Finally, upset with large trade deficits that the US has built, Trump has been very critical of the World Trade Organisation too.
This tirade has been the hallmark of President Trump’s foreign policy, and many saw it coming when matters came to a head with the US withdrawing from the WHO. The number of infected people in the US is now touching two million and more than a hundred thousand have died. Ignoring the deathly potential of this new mutant of corona has indeed been a huge mistake on part of President Trump. He was forced to therefore get aggressive on some third party. China proved to be tough target, not backing down on its stance at all and daring the US to make changes in the trade deal. The WHO was easier, it is stretched to its limits and is being criticised by many for having delayed the declaration of the pandemic.
However, while it was expected that the US will be extremely critical, it was rather shocking to see a complete withdrawal, from funding and form the membership.
The Move is Specially Significant for India
It is especially significant for India, that has now taken over the Executive Chairmanship of the WHO. India has been banking on US support on all fronts, and now more so when China is displaying open hostility having even intruded into Indian territory. That apart, India needs all help it can on the COVID-19 front. The number of cases is increasing at more than 8000 a day, which was 4000 a day just three weeks ago. Testing kits, Personal Protection Equipment and ventilators need to be procured by the millions. Also the entire nation is waiting for the release of some treatment regimen as well as a vaccine which will not happen without significant support to the World Health Organisation from the United States. Most scientists who work at the WHO are American and there are more than 80 centres of the WHO that operate from with the US.
Trump’s critique on the WHO has its merits but his decision to stop funding the organisation when it needs all support possible, is positively bizarre.
If there is any hope of preventing the recurrence of COVID 19 in the future, it will be through the efforts of a multilateral collaboration in developing a cure and a vaccine against the virus. Vaccine research requires enormous effort and needless to say billions of dollars. It is also something that the private sector has abandoned now for decades as the investment is high and returns negligible. Almost all important work on new vaccines, after the World War, has emerged from the various labs that exist in US Universities and are funded hugely by the Federal Government. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention is a US Federal agency with an annual budget of more than 11 billion dollars, the GAVI vaccine alliance is a network comprising the WHO, UNICEF and the rich nations of the world, with the US government again a major source of funding.
All these institutions now are under threat and so is the enormous body of work that is going on towards research on new vaccines and on cures, many of whom are critical for India to reach its targets of eliminating Japanese Encephalitis, Filariasis, Malairia, Measles, Tuberculosis and leprosy. As mentioned earlier, most of big pharma has all but abandoned vaccine research work on fighting viruses. It takes years to get a new vaccine out and competition kicks in after. Also, there is tremendous pressure from various regulatory agencies to keep prices low.
That is why it is important that public investment, helped by philanthropic funding, takes responsibility for vaccination and cure against neglected diseases and in particular against viral infections. The war against HIV/AIDS for example would not have been won without active support from all rich nations. Small pox is another example and so is the victory over polio. And all these were battles that has the United States of America leading form the front, working closely with GAVI, GFATM and the WHO.
The US has historically been the largest funder of the WHO. Last year, it gave nearly 15% of the total budget, a whopping 400 million dollars.
President Trump’s announcement of a withdrawal from the WHO is not only a huge setback to a joint effort against COVID 19, but signals yet again the demise of the US as a world leader.
A President who at first denied the seriousness of the problem, then tried making it a jingoistic issue against China is now derailing the entire fight. Post coronavirus, when the world order will be redefined, this act of abandonment by the President will surely be used to admonish the United States of America. At the moment it is difficult to say which countries will come out stronger in a couple of years, but the US is unlikely to be one of them.
(Amir Ullah Khan is Professor at the ISPP and teaches Health Economics)
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