'Europe works with US' to overhaul WHO

Francesco Guarascio and Elvira Pollina

European governments are working with the United States on plans to overhaul the World Health Organization (WHO), a top health official for a European country says, signalling the continent shares some of the concerns which had led Washington to say it will quit.

The European health official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Britain, France, Germany and Italy were discussing WHO reforms with the United States at the technical level.

The official said the aim was to ensure WHO's independence, an apparent reference to allegations the body was too close to China during its initial response to the coronavirus crisis.

"We are discussing ways to separate WHO's emergency management mechanism from any single-country influence," the official said.

Reforms would involve changing the WHO's funding system to make it more long term, the official said. The WHO operates on a two-year budget, which "could hurt WHO's independence" if it has to raise funds from donor countries in the middle of an emergency, the official said.

US President Donald Trump has accused the WHO of being too close to China and announced plans to quit and withdraw funding.

European countries have occasionally called for reformbut have generally shielded the organisation from the most intense criticism by Washington. In public, the European position has usually been that any reform should come only after an evaluation of the pandemic response.

But minutes of a videoconference of EU health ministers last week suggested European countries were taking a stronger line and seeking more European influence at the WHO. The German and French ministers told their colleagues "an evaluation and reform of the WHO was needed", the minutes said.

That was stronger wording than in a resolution last month which the EU drafted and which was adopted by all 192 WHO member countries. That resolution called for evaluation of the coronavirus response, but it stopped short of calling for reforms.

The German and French ministers told their colleagues "The EU and its MS (member states) should play a bigger role at the global level," the minutes showed.

The WHO drew criticism for praising China's efforts early in the crisis to combat the disease, even as evidence emerged of whistleblowers being silenced.

The EU and its governments funded about 11 per cent of the WHO's $US5.6 billion ($A8.2 billion) budget in 2018-19. The US provided more than 15 per cent; China covered just 0.2 per cent.