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Photo Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

The World Health Organization made mistakes in its initial response to COVID-19, but as it comes under criticism, it's important to remember the world still needs the agency.

Why it matters: President Trump's decision this week to withhold money from the agency could damage its efforts to fight the next pandemic and other health threats. For all its problems, the WHO remains the only global institution charged with combating the global threat of infectious disease.

Background: Despite its grand name and purpose — to "keep the world safe" — the actual scope of the WHO is limited by both its budget and the political realities of international governance.

With a biennial budget of $6.3 billion, the WHO has about as much cash to spend as a large urban hospital system in the U.S., and significantly less than the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • Like all UN agencies, the WHO is not independent in any real sense from its member countries.
  • In the case of its early response to COVID-19, this meant the agency was ultimately dependent on the Chinese government. It wasn't until mid-February — weeks after the outbreak began in Wuhan — that a WHO team was permitted to enter China to begin investigations.

Early on, many WHO officials appeared to underplay the potential global threat posed by the novel coronavirus.

  • What they're saying: In a press conference the day after Trump's attacks, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters the agency's performance would eventually be reviewed, as it was after previous outbreaks, but "for now, our focus — my focus — is on stopping this virus and saving lives."

What's next: Without a revolution in how national governments treat international governance, the WHO will likely continue operating under inherent limitations. But there are steps the agency could take to improve global disease response in particular.

  • The WHO could be more transparent about what it can and what it can't do, and what it knows and what it doesn't know. While it may not be realistic for the WHO to publicly criticize a government like China for holding back information, it could make it clearer to the rest of the world what it isn't being told about an outbreak.

In an increasingly politically divided world, the need for a global broker of some kind on infectious disease will only grow. Geopolitics may still be driven by nation-states, but as we've learned with COVID-19, viruses do not respect borders.

  • Defunding the WHO is like voting to "de-fund fire depart in the middle of a fire, on the grounds they ought to have got to the fire sooner," Lawrence Gostin, the director of the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, tweeted on Thursday.
  • While the focus with COVID-19 has been on the U.S. and China, the biggest losers in a world without the WHO would be poor countries that are much more dependent on the UN agency for assistance. And the next pandemic is just as likely to come from one of them.

The bottom line: An imperfect WHO is still better than a nonexistent one, and policymakers can make the best use of the agency if they fully understand what it can and cannot do.

Go deeper: The U.S. gives far more money to the WHO than China does

Go deeper

Teachers across the U.S. protest laws restricting racism lessons

Thousands of teachers and other educators held protests across the U.S. Saturday against the actions of "at least 15 Republican-led states" that aim to restrict teaching about racism in class, the Washington Post reports.

Driving the news: There were demonstrations in at least 22 cities for the "Day of Action" to raise awareness about moves to limit students' exposure to critical race theory, which links racial discrimination to the nation's foundations and legal system, per Axios' Russell Contreras.

Updated 4 hours ago - Health

Lawsuit challenging Houston Methodist's COVID vaccine mandate dismissed

Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

A federal judge on Saturday dismissed a lawsuit brought by 117 Houston Methodist staff over the hospital's policy requiring all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Why it matters: This is the first federal court ruling on a coronavirus vaccine mandate. Attorney Jared Woodfill, representing the plaintiffs, told KHOU 11 it's "the first battle in a long fight," as he vowed to file another lawsuit soon.

G7 leaders to announce plan to phase out gasoline cars

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson talks next to President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron at the G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, England, on Saturday. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images

G7 leaders are set to announce Sunday a range of measures to tackle climate change, including "ending almost all direct government support" for fossil fuels and phasing out gasoline and diesel cars.

Driving the news: The plan was outlined in a British government announcement Saturday, which states that the leaders will also agree to halting "all unabated coal as soon as possible."