Republicans on the House Oversight Committee blasted the World Health Organization for its complicity in China's propaganda campaign, joining a growing chorus of lawmakers pushing to hold the group accountable, according to a letter obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
In a letter addressed to WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, 14 committee members accused the international organization of "taking its cues from China," and demanded documents and communications between the WHO and the Chinese government. The lawmakers say that WHO repeated "false information from the Chinese government" and delayed the implementation of serious measures such as travel restrictions in response to Chinese pressure.
"Reports suggest that the WHO helped Beijing disseminate propaganda, downplayed the extent of the disease, and possibly delayed ordering a public health emergency," the letter says. "Given the actions and statements of WHO officials during the past few months, we are concerned that the WHO is no longer serving the needs of the world and is instead taking its cues from China."
Recent Stories in Coronavirus
The committee's action follows weeks of growing criticism for WHO's handling of the pandemic. Rep. Jim Banks (R., Ind.) introduced a resolution demanding that WHO disavow its "highly misleading statements of support for the Chinese Government's response to COVID-19" in March. In recent weeks, several GOP senators have called for Tedros's resignation.
WHO has routinely backed China's claims about the pandemic even in the face of contrary evidence. In February, WHO applauded China for the "transparency they have demonstrated" even as reports emerged of widespread Chinese censorship and retaliation against whistleblowers. WHO also helped China downplay the outbreak in its early stages, stating that there was "no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission" in mid-January. It was forced to retract that statement a week later.
The legislators said such behavior suggests that China exercises an undue influence on the international body.
"Throughout the crisis, the WHO has shied away from placing any blame on the Chinese government, which is in essence the Communist Party of China," the letter says. "You, as leader of the WHO, even went so far as to praise the Chinese government’s ‘transparency' during the crisis, when, in fact, the regime has consistently lied to the world by underreporting their actual infection and death statistics."
The letter also criticized the international organization for opposing restrictions on international travel, like that implemented by President Donald Trump on flights from China in late January. Tedros had firmly opposed Trump's travel ban back then, arguing that "this is the time for solidarity, not stigma."
"Despite declaring COVID-19 a [Public Health Emergency of International Concern] and extensive evidence of transmission through travel, the WHO insisted other countries not restrict travel or trade to China," the letter says. "The WHO has not issued updated travel restrictions since February 29 and has still not recommended restricting international travel."
The White House had also taken action against WHO for its alleged ties to China. On Tuesday, President Donald J. Trump said that the international organization was "very China-centric" and threatened to withdraw funding for it.
"And we're going to put a hold on money spent to the WHO," he said during his daily COVID-19 press briefing. "We're going to put a very powerful hold on it, and we're going to see. It's a great thing if it works, but when they call every shot wrong, that's no good."
The letter demanded that WHO turn over all documents and communications between it and the Chinese government, including China's data on COVID-19 cases and deaths within its borders. U.S. intelligence has confirmed that China significantly underreported its COVID-19 cases, with some observers estimating that the death toll in Wuhan alone could be as high as 42,000, rather than the official tally of 3,000.
"The World Health Organization has become party to China’s coronavirus misinformation and propaganda campaign. Whether it’s deliberate or not, we don’t yet know," committee member Rep. Jody Hice (R., Ga.) said. "The United States is the largest contributor of WHO funding, and as such, we have a responsibility to provide oversight and demand reforms when necessary—as it has now."
Lawmakers also requested the WHO's correspondence with Taiwan, in response to reports that the organization ignored Taiwanese reports about the deadly virus in late December. Taiwan lacks official membership in the WHO because China opposed its inclusion. The country has a tense relationship with Tedros, who accused it of condoning racist rumors against him. Taiwan denied Tedros's accusations.
Other members of Congress have also demanded probes into the international organization. Sen. Todd Young (R., Ind.), the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Multilateral Institutions, demanded on Thursday that Tedros testify before Congress about his organization's handling of the pandemic. Sen. Rick Scott (R., Fla.) had also demanded a congressional investigation into the WHO on March 31, accusing the international public health body of "helping Communist China cover up" the details of the outbreak.
Brett Schaefer, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said that the United States is "absolutely justified" in demanding a fact-finding probe into the World Health Organization, but cautioned against cutting off funding for the international organization.
"The U.S. is absolutely justified to call for an independent, external investigation into the WHO response to COVID-19 and the potential influence of China over its decisions," he said. "However, such an investigation will take months to complete. WHO will be critical in helping governments, especially to developing country governments, respond to COVID-19. Now is not the time to cut off funding."
Update: This piece has been updated to include comment from Brett Schaefer.