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Woodward Book Casts New Light On Trump's Fight With WHO


Revelations that President Trump understood the threat of the coronavirus early on and downplayed it to the public have riled the global health community. They say the president has unfairly blamed the World Health Organization for withholding information that he already knew. NPR's Pien Huang reports.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: In the first week of February, President Trump told journalist Bob Woodward that the virus was deadly stuff. Here's part of the recorded interview published in The Washington Post.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You just breathe the air. That's how it's passed. And so that's a very tricky one. That's a very delicate one. It's also more deadly than your - you know, your - even your strenuous flus.

HUANG: In a March interview with Woodward, Trump admitted he deliberately downplayed the seriousness of the virus in public. The revelations are published in Woodward's new book on President Trump called "Rage." He repeated some of the assertions again this week at a White House press briefing.


TRUMP: I don't want to jump up and down and start screaming death, death.

HUANG: And what has global health experts frustrated is that Trump put the blame on the United Nations health agency for not warning the world early enough about the virus. Jeremy Konyndyk, who led the U.S. government's response to global disasters in the Obama administration, says the recordings show the president's accusations against WHO do not hold up.

JEREMY KONYNDYK: These tapes make clear that the very things that the president was accusing WHO of failing to share - you know, specifically the lethality and the transmissibility of this virus - were things he was already well aware of.

HUANG: The president claims the global health agency is too China-centric and did not push China to reveal information earlier. He's used these claims to justify withdrawing from WHO in the middle of a pandemic. Public health experts like Nancy Cox, former director of the CDC's influenza division, say that move could actually prolong the situation.

NANCY COX: To blame it on the WHO and then pull out technical and financial support is absurd. It's just absurd.

HUANG: The president says he held back on sharing the dangers of the virus because he didn't want people to panic. But Jimmy Kolker, a former ambassador and career diplomat, says that misleading the public actually makes people feel like they can't trust the government.

JIMMY KOLKER: The way to avoid a panic is for the public to have confidence that they're getting the right information that they need as soon as it's available to the authorities.

HUANG: Global health experts think Trump used WHO as a scapegoat because it's a soft target with no political base in the U.S. and no ability to fight back. Larry Gostin, a professor of Global Health Law at Georgetown University, also points out that taking the U.S. out of WHO has had big impacts on global coordination for this pandemic.

LARRY GOSTIN: The United States leadership, its finance, its moral authority is missing. And that is making a big difference in terms of the spread of COVID worldwide.

HUANG: And if the U.S. stops working with WHO on things like disease eradication and flu surveillance, Nancy Cox, formerly with the CDC, says U.S. researchers will lose access to conversations where countries share early information with each other. That means the U.S. could be flying blind into future outbreaks.

COX: We're behind the curve in terms of being prepared for the next influenza pandemic or pandemic of whatever disease emerges next.

HUANG: If Trump is re-elected in November, his withdrawal from the agency will go into effect July, 2021.

Pien Huang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPAM ALLSTARS' "FIESTA DE LOS FEOS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.