LEAVING THE W.H.O.: SHOOTING OURSELVES IN BOTH FEET
The President’s decision for the United States to abandon the World Health Organization (WHO) is yet another attempt to deflect blame for his failed leadership in America’s COVID-19 pandemic. The Administration’s act of running from the WHO reflects ignorance and irresponsibility. Because diseases do not respect borders — which COVID-19 has made very real — abandoning the WHO and further isolating America from international alliances, weakens our Country and makes us more vulnerable to the increasingly likely new health threats that are emerging in our constantly changing world.
We are members of National Security Leaders for Biden-Harris. (<www.nationalsecurityleaders4biden.com>) We are retired Admirals and Generals in the U.S. uniformed services, who served as Physician, Nurse or Medical Scientist practitioners and administrators in domestic and international health programs. We have worked in close association with other senior military officers who understand the strategic benefit that global health and health diplomacy contribute to America’s security. For our nation’s sake, we oppose leaving WHO and deliberately denying America the benefits of an international collaboration that supports our overall national security, especially with a global pandemic remaining out of control.
This decision defies rational explanation. There is no health benefit to be gained by leaving WHO. It will not help control COVID-19 in our country or anywhere else. Leaving WHO can, however, disadvantage America in both overt and subtle ways:
o Losing access to various international disease surveillance systems that give early warning of coming disease threats.
o Losing access to the annual international process that identifies the most threatening strains of global influenza and determines the components of the coming year’s flu vaccine.
o Losing access to expert health organizations that, under the auspices of WHO, allows countries to share lessons learned from their health responses. These are threats that may strike us next, whether infectious diseases, radiation emergencies (witness Chernobyl and Fukushima) or exceptional chemical emergencies such as nerve agents in Salisbury, England. If we aren’t there, sharing information and resources with others, why should we expect others to share their information with us? We lose the strategic advantage of preparation.
o Losing access to WHO’s world-wide demographic and health data that US manufacturers rely upon when developing 5 and 10 years plans for goods and commodities in international markets. As multi-national companies, America’s manufacturers have a single source for data from all of the member countries of WHO on societal health trends and demographics as a basis for new product development and production to address future global needs.
WHO’s mission to promote health around the world relies on the voluntary cooperation of member countries. A member country must first invite WHO before WHO can send scientific experts to independently verify that country’s assessment of a disease outbreak or epidemic.
Unfortunately, China delayed sharing critical information about its COVID-19 outbreak. When China finally provided this information to WHO, it shared the information worldwide despite being unable to verify the data because China refused to allow a WHO team in. Despite these limitations, WHO rapidly extrapolated and internationally shared the viral genomic sequencing that has made rapid vaccine development possible. WHO further proposed urgent containment protocols (testing, personal protective equipment, contact tracing and quarantine), and ultimately declared COVID-19 a global health emergency. Yes, WHO made some missteps in its COVID response; but, abandonment is a fool’s easy way out. The challenge this Administration fails to grasp is how to provide world-class leadership to improve and enhance the WHO.
As infectious diseases spread globally, America cannot insulate itself, as shown by pandemic influenza A (2009), Zika virus (2014), Ebola (2014, 2018), and now COVID-19. If we are to best prepare and protect ourselves from disease threats, the US must have access to disease information from other countries. WHO is the lifeline for this resource.
Furthermore, under WHO’s auspices, America can meet with nations with whom we have tenuous diplomatic relationships, paving the way for mutually beneficial health services and programs. Even during the Cold War, the US and the USSR were able to collaboratively support the WHO campaign that eliminated smallpox from the world.
The decision to leave WHO in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak will gain us nothing and cost much. America needs a President who understands that diseases are not limited by borders, and that nations either work together to prevent disease outbreaks or endure illness and death in isolation. America needs a Commander-in-Chief who will lead American collaboration and cooperation, not detachment and disrepute, on the international stage. America needs a new Leader who understands that what benefits the world in global health, also benefits America.
America’s citizens deserve much better than our current president.
Rear Admiral (Ret) Robert Whitney, Former Acting Surgeon General — USPHS, Former Deputy Surgeon General — USPHS; Major General (Ret) Deborah Wheeling, Former ARNG Deputy Surgeon General — USA; Rear Admiral (Ret) Marlene Haffner, Former Assistant Surgeon General — USPHS, Former Director, FDA Office of Orphan Products Development — USDHHS; Rear Admiral (Ret) William Stokes, Former Assistant Surgeon General — USPHS, Former Director, NIH National Toxicology Program Interagency Center — USDHHS