ABC News Corona Virus Government. Response

GOP senators, starting probe, demand WHO turn over details on COVID-19's origin

The Republicans say a main focus will be the WHO's relationship with China.

Republican senators on Tuesday sent a wide-ranging demand for information, records and documents to the World Health Organization regarding the origins of the novel coronavirus, part of a larger investigation into the global response to the pandemic.

In a letter to Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, along with Sen. Rick Scott of Florida and a handful of GOP colleagues, requested a sweeping list of materials regarding what they called "WHO’s failed and delayed response to the Coronavirus."

"American taxpayers fund the WHO, and it is up to us to make sure those taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely," they said.

Separately, President Donald Trump announced Tuesday evening that his administration is halting funding to the WHO.

"I'm instructing my administration to halt funding of the World Health Organization while a review is conducted to assess the world health organization's role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus," Trump said.

It's a move the president has signaled for weeks as he tries to shift blame for his response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. is the largest donor to the world health agency by far and makes its contribution annually.

While Trump criticized the WHO for what he called a failure "to investigate credible reports from sources in Wuhan that conflicted directly with the Chinese government's official accounts," the president had previously praised President Xi Jinping and China for "their effort and transparency" in handling the pandemic.

Johnson, who launched the investigation with his fellow senators this week, indicated in a Politico interview Monday that although he wanted to mount a sweeping look at the response, including the U.S. government’s, the focus of the probe was particularly on the China/WHO component of the crisis.

"Where did this all start from? Was this transferred animal to human? Was this from a lab in China? Might have been the best of intentions trying to come up with the different cures, with the different therapies for the coronavirus in general," he told Politico.

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Comments from WHO’s Tedros and other officials in the organization praising China’s response late into January when the virus was spreading outside that countries borders, angered members on both sides of the aisle, but others have faulted Trump as well.

On Jan. 22, just days after the first positive COVID-19 case surfaced in the U.S., Trump said he was not worried at all, telling CNBC, "No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control."

Critics warned that while it is important to understand the origin of the current coronavirus pandemic, it’s important that it not be used as an effort by Trump’s allies to find a convenient scapegoat to distract from his administration's failure to act quickly enough to mitigate against the spread of the virus.

"I just wonder about their motives," said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., referring to his GOP colleagues several of whom have touted conservative theories that the virus was conceived in a Chinese lab. While he said the WHO "made mistakes. China made egregious mistakes," he added, "It was the president and his team that made a series of blunders, too."

"I will support any good faith public health effort, but I’m not going to support any efforts to find current scapegoats," Murphy said.

"There’s not going to be a simple answer to this question," he said.

A Democratic aide on the Homeland Security Committee told ABC News that "any investigation into the coronavirus response must be comprehensive and follow the facts."

"We need to ensure that our nation is better prepared to address possible pandemics or public health emergencies in the future, and that will require a comprehensive investigation that looks not only at our response, but also our preparedness and how we got here," the Democratic aide said. "Any review also needs to provide concrete steps that can be taken to improve our long-term readiness."

The Johnson letter to WHO -- signed by Sens. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, Martha McSally of Arizona, Steve Daines of Montana, Todd Young of Indiana, and Joni Ernst of Iowa -- sought detailed information on protocols and procedures in place at the end of 2019, as a patient in Wuhan, China, tested positive for COVID-19; when the WHO knew of China’s first case and when it got boots on the ground there to investigate; who coordinated a response with the ruling Chinese Communist Party; and if the world agency received any "financial compensation outside of their WHO salaries."

The newly-launched Senate inquiry sought agency property, including electronic records, hard drives, emails, and text messages from from Oct. 1, 2019, to March 12, 2020.

Scott, a noted China hawk and Homeland Security Committee member, is expected to lead the WHO/China portion of the panel’s probe. In a recent Fox News op-ed, the senator made clear his disdain for the WHO which he called a "puppet" and "shill" of Beijing, writing, "American taxpayers are the largest contributor to the WHO budget. There needs to be accountability for their failures and their willingness to help China hide the coronavirus from the world."

"Whether we cut funding or tie future funding to certain changes in the organization, we have to take action," Scott wrote.

A number of GOP senators supported Trump's recent statements about his administration considering pulling funding from the WHO.

A spokesman for the Senate Homeland Security Committee was not able to say when the first hearing might take place. The letter requests WHO answers by April 21, and the Senate is not expected to return for business before May 4.

Congressional action could extend beyond the Johnson-Scott probe, with a number of GOP senators calling for retaliatory action against China.

A bill by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, introduced Tuesday, would impose sanctions on Chinese officials "who engage in censorship through activities that prohibit, limit, or penalize the exercise of freedom of expression or assembly by citizens of the People’s Republic of China, including prohibitions, limitations, or penalties related to the use of social media."

The sanctions are also designed to penalize those Chinese citizens who disseminate inaccurate epidemiological information.

GOP Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri introduced legislation Tuesday that would "hold the Chinese Communist Party responsible for causing the COVID-19 global pandemic."

The bill would strip the communist country of its sovereign immunity to allow lawsuits and would create a "Justice for Victims of COVID-19 Task Force" at the State Department to lead an international probe of Beijing’s handling of the pandemic.

"There is overwhelming evidence that the Chinese Communist Party’s lies, deceit, and incompetence caused COVID-19 to transform from a local disease outbreak into a global pandemic. We need an international investigation to learn the full extent of the damage," said Hawley. "The CCP unleashed this pandemic. They must be held accountable to their victims."

What to know about coronavirus:

  • How it started and how to protect yourself: coronavirus explained
  • What to do if you have symptoms: coronavirus symptoms
  • Tracking the spread in the US and Worldwide: coronavirus map