Pandemic treaty talks postponed: World Health Assembly so far 

Outside the World Health Organization headquarters, Geneva. (Keystone/ Salvatore di Nolfi)

Talks on the creation of a new international treaty to help deal with future emergencies like the Covid-19 pandemic have been postponed until later this year following a consensus decision taken at the World Health Assembly (WHA) on Tuesday. 

World Health Organization (WHO) member states agreed to hold a special WHA ministerial session in November to consider the benefits of developing a WHO convention, agreement “or other international instruments on pandemic preparedness and response”.

In a joint statement delivered on behalf of the 26 main sponsors of the treaty idea, Germany said: “In our view, a pandemic treaty under the roof of the WHO is the preferred way to strengthen the multilateral health architecture.”

Speaking at the assembly, South Africa, also a co-sponsor of the proposal, said the proposed treaty was central to developing more agile collective defenses against health threats and building resilience to future pandemics.

In total some 59 countries supported the decision to hold a special session of the WHA to discuss a potential treaty. However, countries including Russia and the US have been opposed to the idea of a new binding instrument, as reported by Health Policy Watch.

In a strategic briefing held by the WHO on Tuesday, Charles Michel, president of the European Council who since November has pushed for the international treaty, reiterated calls “to foster a comprehensive approach to better predict, prevent and respond to pandemics, strengthen global capacity and resilience to ensure fair access to medical solutions, and bolster international alert systems.”

Avoiding the same pandemic mistakes

The treaty decision came on the second day of the 74th session of the WHO’s decision-making body, where urgent efforts to end the current pandemic and avert future health crises were top priorities.

The three top committees commissioned by the WHO to study the pandemic response  – the International Health Regulations Review Committee (IRC), the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee (IOAC) and the independent panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPR) – presented their findings and recommendations.

Speaking at the assembly, Dr Felicity Harvey, chair of the IOAC, a committee that provides oversight for health emergency programmes, said that Covid had exposed the failings in the health system. However, despite the challenges faced, the WHO “has maintained, and indeed strengthened its leadership position in the global response, throughout the pandemic.”

Still, due to insufficient political will and global solidarity, limited production of vaccines and inadequate funding of the WHO, the Covid response is severely hampered.

Harvey added that although the WHO director general is committed to employing the recommendations of the IOAC, with some already being implemented, “political and financial commitment of member states is fundamental to fully tackle the pandemic.”

Professor Lothar Wieler, chair of the IRC, reported that the WHO lacked the human and financial resources at the secretariat level to coordinate responses to Covid and prevent health crises.

“We were informed that less than 200 full time equivalents are employed by WHO. This is clearly insufficient…states should ensure adequate financing of WHO to enable it to accelerate its functions,” said Wieler.

Co-chair of the IPPR and former President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, called for recommendations made by independent panels to be implemented and not ignored.

“We have seen previous reports, other reviews like ours, ignored, and left to gather dust. The consequences of this is the situation we find ourselves in today,” she said.

Delegates from different regions including the European Union and United States showed full support for the recommendations made by panelists.

“We must land the solution to global health security financing, and in particular the financing for capacity building that is necessary to ensure that all countries can prepare for, but also prevent, detect and respond to the threats that we know are coming,” said Beth Cameron speaking on behalf of the US.

Fighting the pandemic one vaccine at a time

In his opening remarks at the World Health Assembly on Monday, director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus paid tribute to the 115,000 health workers who have lost their lives tackling the Covid pandemic.

He said he was pleased with the drop in new Covid-19 cases and deaths being reported over the last three consecutive weeks but warned that the world remained in a very fragile situation.

“We must be very clear: the pandemic is not over, and it will not be over until and unless transmission is controlled in every last country,” he said, stressing that Covid-19 vaccines should be at the top of WHA’s agenda.

He once again reprimanded wealthy nations for the “scandalous inequity,” in the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines and which he warned is perpetuating the pandemic.

Helen Clark, also co-chair of the IPPR urged countries to redistribute doses equitably as well as removing barriers for scaling up vaccines manufacturing “by sharing intellectual property and transferring relevant technology, scaling up voluntary licensing.”

Ghebreyesus embraced the International Monetary Fund’s plans to vaccinate 40 per cent of the global population by the close of the year and 60 per cent by mid-2022.

He further urged countries to donate doses to the WHO backed vaccine sharing programme, Covax which aims to inoculate 30 per cent of every country by the end of the year. So far, 75 million doses have been delivered to 125 countries – covering barely one per cent of the combined population of those countries.

Since the year began there have been more cases and deaths than reported in the entire year of 2020. The confirmed Covid-19 cases have surpassed 167 million cases worldwide and over 3.4 million people have lost their lives to the virus.

“The pandemic has been a significant setback in our efforts to support the member states to progress towards universal health coverage,” Ghebreyesus said.  "The pandemic is not over, and it will not be over until and unless transmission is controlled in every last country.”

Taiwan’s plea to participate rejected

Taiwan’s hopes of being granted observer status at this year’s assembly were dashed after member states decided not to discuss whether Taiwan should be allowed to participate in the WHA, locking it out of the vital talks for the fifth year in a row.

Although in the past Taiwan and its 23 million population has been hailed for its exemplary fight against the pandemic, in recent weeks there has been a significant rise in cases. Ministers from the country urge that this serves as an important reminder for why their involvement is critical in the discussions.

In a statement by the Taiwanese foreign minister Joseph Wu and Health Minister Chen Shih-Chung they said the WHO “should serve the health and welfare of all humanity and not capitulate to the political interests of a certain member,” referring to China.

Putting forward the “one-China principle” Chen Xu, China’s permanent representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva said the Chinese delegation supported the rejection of Taiwan-related recommendation put forward by the general committee of the WHA.

“The UNGA Resolution 2758 and WHA Resolution 25.1 provided the legal basis for WHO to abide by the one-China principle, and recognized Taiwan as part of China,” Chen said.

“The Taiwan-related proposal is in violation of the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, runs against the WHO's Constitution and the WHA's Rules of Procedure, and is illegal and invalid,” he added.

A new pathogen biohub

On Monday, Switzerland and the WHO agreed to launch a BioHub Facility to enhance the rapid sharing of viruses and other pathogens between laboratories and partners globally.

WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus with Swiss federal councillor Alain Berset (Keystone/Laurent Gillieron)

Under the agreement, signed on the sidelines of the assembly, Switzerland said it will make its Biocontainment Laboratory in Spiez available for receiving SARS-COV-2, its variants, and other pathogens.

It will also serve a centre for sequencing, storing and preparing biological materials for distribution to other laboratories.

Currently, most pathogen sharing is done bilaterally between countries and on an ad hoc basis, which can be slow, and leave some countries without access to the benefits and tools, the WHO said.  Creating a central hub will help speed up the process.

“Close international collaboration to ensure the timely sharing of epidemiological and clinical data as well as biological materials is of utmost importance,” Swiss federal councillor Alain Berset added.