US President Donald Trump has ordered that his country’s payments to the World Health Organisation be halted.
Mr Trump said that the global health body had “failed in its basic duty and it must be held accountable” for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
He blamed the group for promoting China’s “disinformation” about the virus in the days following the initial outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
The virus – which has infected almost two million people worldwide – could have been contained at its source if the WHO had been better at investigating the initial reports that came from China, Mr Trump said.
But he added that the US will continue to engage with the organisation to pursue what he described as meaningful reforms.
The US is one of the World Health Organisation’s biggest financial backers. In February, Mr Trump’s administration had called for America’s contribution to be slashed from $122.6m (£99.5m) to $57.9m (£47m).
The WHO has praised China for its transparency on the pandemic, despite the fact there is reason to believe the country’s official tally does not reflect the true number of fatalities.
Beijing is another major financial contributor to the UN health agency, prompting critics to claim that the WHO lacks the independence needed to properly fulfil its role.
Mr Trump’s move comes amid growing criticism of his own handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
Despite his own claims of success, it has emerged that he was warned about the virus and its potential for destruction as early as January.
Among those warnings was one from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on 8 January, when the pandemic was seen as just a cluster of pneumonia.
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On 21 January, the US saw its first case – a man in his 30s – but a day later, Mr Trump said: “It’s going to be fine”.
As late as the middle of March, he was comparing COVID-19 to flu, an illness which he said saw “nothing shut down, life and the economy go on”.
Mr Trump’s news conferences have focused on promoting hydroxychloroquine, a drug that has not been scientifically proven to treat the virus, along with dodging blame and attacking reporters and rival politicians.
Mr Trump used a media briefing on Monday to direct his anger at fellow politicians and the media, in what one television network described as “the biggest meltdown from a US president” they’d ever seen.
The president had also claimed he – not state governors – had total authority over when states should end their lockdowns.
Among those angered by that assertion was New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo, who said: “His proclamation is that he would be king, that’s what a king is. A king has total authority. That statement cannot stand.”
But on Tuesday, Mr Trump stepped back from his previous stance, saying he would talk to governors and states would decide when and how to end lockdowns.