On his first day in office, Biden retracts US withdrawal from WHO

The World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo by: Denis Balibouse / Reuters

On his first day in office, U.S. President Joseph Biden overturned a Donald Trump-era decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization, a move welcomed by WHO’s leadership.

Biden wrote to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres retracting the letter sent by his predecessor on July 6, 2020, that notified the U.N. Secretariat of the U.S. government’s intention to withdraw its membership from WHO. The letter was supposed to take effect on July 6, a full year’s notice as per protocol.

“The United States intends to remain a member of the World Health Organization,” Biden wrote.

“The WHO plays a crucial role in the world’s fight against the deadly COVID-19 pandemic as well as countless other threats to global health and health security.  The United States will continue to be a full participant and a global leader in confronting such threats and advancing global health and health security,” he said.

Biden’s action to reverse the WHO withdrawal decision has been widely anticipated by many in global health. It was part of his presidential campaign promises. Once the U.S. resumes engagement with WHO, the new U.S. administration “will work with the WHO and our partners to strengthen and reform the organization, support the COVID-19 health and humanitarian response, and advance global health and health security,” according to a White House press release.

Speaking at the WHO executive board session on Thursday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Biden’s chief medical adviser, said the retraction letter has been transmitted not just to Guterres, but also to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. He thanked WHO for its role in leading the global public health response to the coronavirus pandemic, “under trying circumstances,” as he announced the U.S. will remain a member of the organization.

Apart from retracting the withdrawal letter, the U.S. will also fulfill its financial obligations to WHO, Fauci said. The U.S. will cease the drawdown of U.S. staff seconded to WHO, and will also resume regular engagement of U.S. government personnel with the global health body and through its collaborating centers, he added.

Fauci said that Biden will issue a directive later today that includes the U.S. intent to join COVAX, the global vaccines initiative co-led by Gavi, WHO, and CEPI whose goal is to equitably distribute COVID-19 vaccines globally, and support the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, or ACT-Accelerator.

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On Tuesday, Biden’s nominee for the U.S. secretary of state position, Antony Blinken, already mentioned the U.S. intention to join COVAX during a Senate hearing.

Biden will be revoking the Mexico City policy, also known as the “global gag rule,” “in the coming days, as part of his broader commitment to protect women's health and advance gender equality at home and around the world,” Fauci added.

Responding to Fauci’s statement, Tedros said: “This is a good day for WHO, and a good day for global health.” He thanks Biden for honoring his pledge to maintain U.S. membership in the organization.

“WHO is a family of nations, and we are all glad that the United States is staying in the family. We are family,” he said.

Global health experts welcomed the U.S. leadership move, but some with caveats.

“...welcome back. But we could easily do without @joebiden's "renewed US leadership" rhetoric. @WHO mainly needs team players and less dependency from the powerful (USA, EU, China, philanthrocapitalists) and their agenda,” according to a tweet by the Geneva Global Health Hub.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.