Find out why the international agency exists in the first place—and the ramifications a U.S. withdrawal could have for global health.
World Health Organization (WHO) Health Emergencies Programme head Michael Ryan, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and WHO's COVID-19 technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove attend a press conference on July 3, 2020 at the WHO headquarters in Geneva. Photograph by Fabrice Coffrini, Pool, AFPA via Getty images
By Amy McKeever, National Geographic
If the U.S. does ultimately leave, observers worry about what that will mean—for the nation, the WHO, and global health. In 2018-2019, the United States was the top contributor to the WHO, with $893 million. Its contributions account for about 15 percent of the WHO’s biennial budget.
This funding shortfall would gut the WHO’s ability to respond to global emergencies—such as the current one—by reducing the resources for providing vaccines and tracing outbreaks. A reduced budget could jeopardize endeavors like the Solidarity Trial, an international research endeavor the WHO launched to find treatments for COVID-19, as well as the agency's work to equip its members with vital medical supplies. It would also devastate the many public health campaigns the WHO operates, from combating tuberculosis to promoting children’s health.
Kachur notes too that most of the money the U.S. gives to the WHO comes from voluntary contributions, which donors can earmark to specific programs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where Kachur spent most of his career, makes sizable voluntary contributions to the WHO on behalf of the U.S. government for efforts including polio eradication, influenza surveillance, and vaccine development—contributions that would cease unless Congress steps in to protect them. "The United States has controlled a lot of what the WHO prioritizes through its [voluntary] contributions," Kuchar says. "And so by pulling out of WHO, the programs that are affected the most are those that matter the most to the U.S."
Withdrawal would also mean cutting off access to the WHO’s global system for sharing data and vaccine research during a pandemic—while making the world more vulnerable to future pandemics. “We’d lose a very important link to our understanding of where health threats are emerging,” Kachur says. He points out that the WHO could no longer rely on the expertise of U.S. scientists who currently advise the organization—and the U.S. would also forfeit some of its ability to influence scientific standards and practices across the globe. Read more >>