By Stephanie Nebehay and Silke Koltrowitz

GENEVA/ZURICH (Reuters) – The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) voiced confidence on Monday that the United States would continue funding his U.N. agency, despite President Donald Trump’s criticism of WHO’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that the Trump administration was re-evaluating U.S. funding to the body, saying international organisations utilising U.S. taxpayer money needed to deliver on their goals.

The United States is the biggest overall donor to the Geneva-based WHO, contributing more than $400 million in 2019, roughly 15% of its budget.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, asked by a U.S.-based journalist about reports that Trump might “cut off” funding this week, said he had spoken with him two weeks ago.

“What I know is that he is supportive and I hope that the funding to WHO will continue. The relationship we have is very good and we hope that this will continue,” Tedros said.

Days after China informed it about cases of pneumonia of unknown origin on Dec. 31, the WHO sent an alert to all member states on Jan. 5, its top emergencies expert Dr. Mike Ryan said.

“From that perspective the information was shared and very appropriate actions were taken in the United States in response to that alert,” he said.

“TIME FOR VIGILANCE”

Tedros said that countries in Europe that are considering lifting restrictions as the number of new cases stabilises or drops must be guided by the need to protect human health.

“While COVID accelerates very fast, it decelerates much more slowly. In other words the way down is much slower than the way up. Control measures must be lifted slowly…,” he said.

Asked whether Europe was approaching a “turning point”, Ryan said: “We look at the number of confirmed cases and at the number of hospitalisations as the first indicator that things may be stabilising and we’re certainly seeing that.”

“Now is time for vigilance, now is time to double down, now is the time to be very, very careful. That doesn’t mean the countries cannot begin to create an exit strategy,” Ryan said.

Yemen reported its first case of the novel coronavirus last Friday as aid groups braced for an outbreak in a country where war has shattered health systems and spread hunger and disease.

Ryan said the United Nations was working with all sides in Yemen to help ensure that “the surveillance systems that we have in place for polio, cholera and further diseases are now being fully activated to detect any suspect cases of COVID-19”.

The lack of ventilators and technicians will be a “huge challenge”, he said, adding: “We will all struggle to provide adequate levels of supportive care to people should the disease take off.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Silke Koltrowitz; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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