The director-general of the World Health Organization upbraided U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday for “untrue and unacceptable” allegations during the coronavirus pandemic after British media reported that Pompeo made a comment about the health agency chief having been “bought” by China.
In one of his most defensive and full-throated replies yet to months of criticism from Washington, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said WHO was focused on “saving lives” as he condemned the reported comments by Pompeo at a closed-door event this week in London.
“The comments were done, I think on Tuesday — last Tuesday. And the comments are untrue and unacceptable, and without any foundation for that matter,” Tedros told reporters in Geneva. “If there is one thing that really matters to us and which should matter to the entire international community, it’s saving lives. And WHO will not be distracted by these comments.”
British newspapers reported Wednesday that Pompeo claimed Tedros had been “bought” by the Chinese government, an unusually personal accusation following the many broadsides the Trump administration has directed at WHO in recent months over its response to the emergence of the coronavirus in China.
Critics say the Trump administration has been trying to distract attention from its own failings in managing the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, which has the most confirmed cases and virus-related deaths in the world.
In recent months, the administration has repeatedly criticized WHO’s handling of the pandemic and its alleged deference to Beijing. President Donald Trump has ordered the United States to withdraw next year from the agency it has bankrolled and supported for decades.
Pompeo was not asked about his reported comments at a news conference in Denmark on Wednesday. Before that appearance, The Times of London, citing unidentified attendees, reported he told a gathering of British lawmakers that the U.S. had intelligence suggesting Tedros had been “bought” by China’s government and that his election as WHO chief in 2017 had led to the death of British nationals.
The State Department did not immediately respond to queries from The Associated Press about the British reports and Tedros’ remarks, which included blaming partisan politics for worsening the pandemic.
“One of the greatest threats we face continues to be the politicization of the pandemic. COVID-19 does not respect borders, ideologies or political parties,” Tedros said Thursday. “I have said it many times: COVID politics should be quarantined, and I’m appealing again to all nations to work together. Politics and partisanship have made things worse.”
Tedros’ defensiveness was echoed by other WHO officials, who rallied around the agency’s integrity and actions — and its chief.
“We are proud, proud to be WHO. And we will remain so. And we will serve the vulnerable people of the world, regardless of what is said about us,” said Dr. Michael Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief, clearing his throat.
Added Maria Van Kerkhove, the technical lead on the WHO’s emergencies program: “I feel the need to say something as an American, as a proud WHO employee. I have had the honor and privilege to sit next to Dr. Tedros and Dr. Mike Ryan for I-don’t-know-how-many days since the beginning of this pandemic, and I have never been more proud to be WHO.”