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Republicans urge Trump not to terminate relationship with World Health Organization

Posted June 15, 2020 1:01 p.m. EDT

— Despite alleging that the World Health Organization "enabled" the Chinese government's sweeping cover-up of the coronavirus pandemic's origins, House Republicans are urging the Trump administration to reconsider its recent decision to terminate relations with the international body, arguing the US can do more to affect change as a member.

The recommendation is part of a new report issued by Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs Committee Monday, which outlines the findings of a months-long investigation into the origins of the outbreak and Beijing's efforts to "conceal the spread and novel nature of the virus."

"After months of investigating, it's become crystal clear the Chinese Communist Party's cover-up of the coronavirus, especially in the early days of the outbreak, played a significant role in turning what could have been a local epidemic into a global pandemic," Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, leader of the GOP China task force, said in a statement to CNN.

"And, unfortunately, the World Health Organization under the leadership of Director General Tedros (Adhanom Ghebreyesus) only exacerbated the problem by repeatedly ignoring warnings about the severity of the virus, including from their own health experts, while at the same time parroting the CCP's propaganda without independently confirming their claims," he added.

Investigating the origins of the coronavirus outbreak has become a partisan issue in recent months as top Trump administration officials have attempted to publicly blame China, and the WHO, for the outbreak spreading to the US as it faces criticism for its own response.

However, aides involved in compiling Monday's GOP report are making clear that the findings are not just a political diversion tactic, insisting they should be reviewed separately from any oversight of the administration's domestic response. A Democratic committee aide told CNN that it was unclear if members or staff had reviewed the report released Monday.

The investigation primarily involved a thorough review of open source reporting and the recommendations were made after consulting the State Department and key allies, committee aides told CNN, adding that the probe only covers matters under the panel's jurisdiction.

But while the GOP-led probe determined that there is evidence supporting many of the allegations made by US officials, investigators ultimately disagreed with the administration's decision to withdraw from the WHO, breaking with President Donald Trump, who announced just last month that the US would do just that.

"While I join the president in his frustration with the WHO under Tedros' leadership, I think we can affect more change within the organization as a member. I was pleased to hear NSA {Robert} O'Brien say the U.S. 'would consider coming back' once necessary reforms were enacted," McCaul told CNN in a statement.

Instead, the report calls for an international investigation into the WHO's actions and for Tedros to resign.

"Director General Tedros has failed in his duties as the head of the World Health Organization. Until Tedros is no longer the head of the WHO, I do not believe the United States should contribute any additional voluntary funds," McCaul said.

On Monday, the WHO confirmed that the US still one of its member states.

"Yes, the United States is still a member of the -- a member state -- of the World Health Organization," Tedros said when asked about the relationship during a media briefing in Geneva on Monday.

Will Trump reverse his decision?

It remains to be seen if Monday's report has any impact on Trump's decision to cut ties with the WHO but committee aides told CNN that its recommendations are based on exhaustive conversations with several key US allies who agree the US should remain a member of the WHO.

The hope, aides said, is that the US can build an international coalition to enact significant changes at the WHO, which has faced questions about its independence given China's rising wealth and power.

Critics point to the WHO's effusive praise of China's response to the pandemic. Organization officials have defended their early actions when it came to fighting the coronavirus, noting that much was unknown about the virus back in January.

That argument is echoed throughout Monday's GOP report, which includes a list of unanswered questions for WHO officials who aides told CNN have failed to respond to multiple letters from McCaul.

Trump's decision to permanently terminate the US relationship with the WHO follows a years-long pattern of skepticism of world organizations, with the President claiming that the US is being taken advantage of.

The President has questioned US funding to the United Nations and NATO, withdrawn from the Paris climate accord and repeatedly criticized the World Trade Organization.

Trump has also said that if the WHO had acted appropriately, he could have instituted a travel ban on people coming from China sooner.

But health experts, US lawmakers and world leaders have expressed concern over defunding the organization amid a pandemic.

After Trump's announcement last month, a WHO spokesperson told CNN, "We have no comment to offer at this point."

Chinese government bears 'overwhelming responsibility'

Ultimately, however, the report alleges that the Chinese government bears responsibility for failing to warn the world before the outbreak spread out of control, infecting people on nearly every continent, killing hundreds of thousands and leaving many more isolated.

China had enough information to warrant a full scale public health response as early as mid-December of last year but government officials attempted to keep the spread of cases quiet, the report argues.

"Based on an examination of the early stages of the outbreak, efforts to conceal the spread and novel nature of the virus, failures to share accurate information as required by international law, and the suppression of voices seeking to warn the world, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) bears overwhelming responsibility for allowing a local outbreak to become a global pandemic," it reads.

"In sum, the COVID-19 global pandemic could have been prevented if the CCP acted in a transparent and responsible manner," the report adds.

Currently, the earliest case identified by Chinese authorities can be traced back to November 17, 2019, in the city of Wuhan, according to the GOP investigation, which notes that the cause of the virus remains unknown but is "believed to likely be the result of a zoonotic spillover event."

As the virus began to spread throughout Wuhan in November and early December, Chinese officials did not report the emerging outbreak to international health officials despite regulations that were implemented following the SARS pandemic in 2003 requiring them to do so.

Despite public reports to the contrary, the Chinese government also did not directly notify WHO about signs of the emerging coronavirus outbreak in late December, one of several instances in which Beijing violated international law as part of a sweeping cover-up of the pandemic's origins, according to the report.

Instead, WHO officials first learned about an initial cluster of atypical pneumonia cases in the Chinese city of Wuhan from online posts that were picked up by a "US-based open-access platform for early intelligence about infectious disease outbreaks," according to the GOP document, which cites public remarks made by to Dr. Michael Ryan, the executive director of the WHO's Health Emergencies Program on April 20.

"WHO headquarters in Geneva instructed the WHO China Country Office to seek verification of these reports from the PRC's government. Despite public reporting to the contrary, the PRC never notified the WHO about the outbreak in Wuhan," the GOP report reads.

But Ryan's comments were not widely reported by Western media outlets and the WHO has done little to make clear that they were never approached by the Chinese government.

Last month, Trump said that China had not properly reported information it had about the coronavirus to the World Health Organization and said China had pressured the WHO to "mislead the world."

"Chinese officials ignored their reporting obligations to the World Health Organization and pressured the World Health Organization to mislead the world when the virus was first discovered by Chinese authorities," Trump said. "Countless lives have been taken and profound economic hardship has been inflicted all around the globe."

Chinese officials have repeatedly pushed back on allegations that they are to blame for the outbreak and amplified unfounded conspiracy theories about the virus' origins.

Still no evidence virus escaped from Wuhan lab

Trump has repeatedly pointed the finger at China and the WHO while mostly giving himself rave reviews for its handling of the pandemic, despite Covid-19 testing fumbles and a national stockpile short on supplies when they were needed most.

Last month, the President undercut a rare on-the-record statement from his own intelligence community hours earlier by claiming he had seen evidence that gives him a "high degree of confidence" the novel coronavirus originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China, but declined to provide details to back up his assertion.

Despite warnings from scientists and intelligence professionals that the US may never know the precise origin of the virus, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also pushed the intelligence community for precise details about the origin of the virus, CNN has learned.

As a result, intelligence officials are facing enormous pressure to determine whether the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, two sources familiar with their frustrations told CNN. While the intelligence community has been wary to share details about the demands coming from the Trump administration, officials have told allies that the situation on the inside is alarming.

Assessments by scientists and those circulated among US intelligence-sharing allies have posited that it is "highly unlikely" the virus originated in a lab.

The US intelligence community has said it is looking into both possibilities and Monday's GOP report reiterates that neither the virus' origin nor patient zero are currently known.

Monday's report does, however, raise note that there are lingering safety questions involving the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a facility that has often been linked to theories about the outbreak's origins.

While the report makes clear that legitimate questions about the facility's security are "not evidence that the ongoing pandemic is the result of a release, accidental or deliberate, from the lab, or what the staffing status was at the time of the outbreak of COVID-19 in late 2019, it is important to consider these concerns in light of the PRC's history with lab accidents."

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