(Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks at a video conference of Group of Seven leaders on April 16, 2020.)
[Courtesy of Japan's Cabinet Secretariat]

WASHINGTON - Leaders from the Group of Seven industrialized nations on Thursday called for a "thorough" review and reform of the World Health Organization, the White House said, as the United States steps up criticism that the U.N. body has mishandled the coronavirus outbreak.

While the group affirmed cooperation in responding to the global health crisis and committed to working toward a strong economic recovery, "much of the conversation centered on the lack of transparency and chronic mismanagement of the pandemic by the WHO," the White House said.

(WHO headquarters in Geneva)

"The leaders called for a thorough review and reform process," it said in a statement issued after the leaders' second video teleconference in a month, noting that the G-7 countries annually contribute more than a billion dollars to the WHO.

U.S. President Donald Trump has recently been turning up the heat on the WHO, saying that its "China-centric" approach has led to faulty recommendations and responses to the spread of the novel coronavirus.

On Tuesday, Trump directed his administration to halt U.S. funding of the WHO and said that a review will be conducted to assess the U.N. agency's role, a move that has stirred controversy within and beyond the country as the worldwide fight against the pandemic continues.

In the previous summit in March, the global mandate of the WHO was "fully" supported by the G-7.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, meanwhile, stressed the need to help vulnerable countries such as those in Africa secure health care services and to speed up the development of pharmaceutical treatments for COVID-19, a government official said in Tokyo.

The Japanese government sees Avigan, an anti-influenza drug made by a Japanese firm, as having the potential to treat COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, and plans to provide it for free to at least 20 nations.

Abe also explained to other G-7 leaders his declaration earlier in the day of a state of emergency for all of Japan.

The official declined to provide details to reporters on what Abe said about WHO reform, calling the leader's remarks on the issue a part of "diplomatic exchanges."

(Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe)

Since the virus was first detected in China late last year, global infections have topped 2 million with over 140,000 deaths, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.

The pandemic has triggered lockdowns in hard-hit countries and travel restrictions, resulting in a significant drop in economic activity.

The G-7 has pledged to "do whatever it takes, using all policy tools" to protect the economy from downside risks but the challenges are manifold with the International Monetary Fund projecting the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Italy, a G-7 member with one of the worst outbreaks in the group, is expected to suffer the sharpest drop of 9.1 percent in real gross domestic product in 2020, compared with a 3.0 percent contraction for the world economy overall, according to the IMF's World Economic Outlook report.

The other G-7 members are Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and the United States.

The United States, which holds the group's presidency this year, has become the country with the world's highest number of confirmed coronavirus infections. But Trump said Wednesday that the country's peak in new infections had already passed and showed eagerness to reopen the world's largest economy, apparently to seek a quick recovery ahead of the November presidential election.

(U.S. President Donald Trump)

"Going forward, G-7 leaders tasked their ministers to work together to prepare all G-7 economies to re-open safely and on a foundation that will allow the G-7 nations to reestablish economic growth with more resilient health systems and trusted supply chains," the White House said in the statement.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had been discharged from the hospital after receiving treatment for his infection with the coronavirus, was absent from Thursday's conference.