The head of the World Health Organization has called "untrue and unacceptable" allegations by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who reportedly said the health official had struck a deal with China that has influenced the body's decisions.
The response comes after months of criticism from the administration of US President Donald Trump, who has paused funding and began to withdraw the US from the UN agency, while calling WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus a "puppet of China".
"The comments are untrue and unacceptable and without any foundation, for that matter," WHO chief Tedros said on Thursday in response to a question at a Geneva briefing about the reported remarks by Pompeo.
According to the Times and the Daily Telegraph newspapers, Pompeo told a private meeting of MPs in London on Tuesday that the WHO had become a "political" body, alleging that its decisions were influenced by a deal struck between Tedros and China that helped him become the body's head.
"When push came to shove, when it really mattered most", people died "because of the deal that was made", Pompeo was quoted as saying.
Responding further to the allegation, for which the Trump administration has offered no proof, Tedros said the "sole focus ... of the entire organisation is on saving lives. WHO will not be distracted by these comments and we don't want the entire international community also to be distracted."
He also reiterated a previous warning that one of the greatest threats in the current crisis is the "politicisation of the pandemic".
'Firmly focused on saving lives'
WHO COVID-19 technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove, who is a US citizen, also pushed back Thursday against the charges lobbed against the UN agency.
"I have never been more proud to be WHO," she said.
"I see first-hand every day the work that Dr Tedros does ... that our teams do, all over the world," she said, insisting the entire organisation was "firmly focused on saving lives."
At Thursday's news conference, Tedros also stressed the importance of individual responsibility in the global bid to halt the spread of the virus, pointing to a range of fresh outbreaks associated with nightclubs and social gatherings.
"We're asking everyone to treat the decisions about where they go, what they do and who they meet with as life-and-death decisions," he said.
"It may not be your life, but your choices could be the difference between life and death for someone you love, or for a complete stranger," he added. "Don't expect someone else to keep you safe. We all have a part to play in protecting ourselves and one another."
A WHO advance team has been in China for nearly two weeks, organising a WHO-led international mission to investigate the origins of the virus. Scientists believe it emerged in a food market in the central city of Wuhan late last year.
"We are already beginning to reach out to experts at the international level to see who will be available and most appropriate to be able to support an international mission in the coming weeks," Mike Ryan, WHO's top emergencies expert, said at the briefing.