Patent-free vaccine, Taiwan or the EU resolution: what is exactly the position of Switzerland?

Nora Kronig Romero, Swiss global health ambassador (Photo: Nicolas Zonvi)

At the opening of the first-to-be World Health Assembly in Geneva on Monday May 18th, Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga gave its “full and total support to the WHO”. What does it mean exactly? We asked Nora Kronig Romero, Swiss global health ambassador and main delegate taking part to the virtual assembly to tell us more about the Swiss position on a few key points.

Geneva Solutions: Equitable access to Covid-19 technologies, drugs and vaccines ?

Nora Kronig Romero: Switzerland has engaged for many years on a holistic approach for an equitable, affordable, timely and innovative access to medicines. We do so in the current times as well. We consider very positive the fact that there is so much direct involvement to make sure we work together across sectors and between different stakeholders to shape a collective response to the pandemic.

Why is Switzerland not co-sponsoring the Covid-19 response resolution ?

We support it. We are not co-sponsoring it because since the beginning we were engaged for a consensus text and found the way to reach a conclusion quite hard.

Is the resolution not ambitious enough?

We found it tricky to negotiate such a broad text with so many elements remotely, without the possibility to meet in person and discuss different positions and point of views. When we saw how the negotiations were developing and how long it took to go through the text, with the many issues on the table, with members states having different opinions, we did feel that consensus would have been very ambitious.

What is lacking in this resolution in your point of view?

We regret that we did not reach full consensus because we do believe it is one of the strength of meeting at the WHO to do so, even on the most controversial issues. We are aware of the challenge of looking at issues with the necessary time and to discuss them thoroughly, in a framework where we can actually do so.

Does Switzerland support the idea of a vaccine as a public good ?

Immunization is in the public space and by essence should be available for everybody. We engage strongly in that. We are very engaged in R&D of a vaccine. The production and distribution dimension should not be forgotten. It is very important to bring it to the market. Working closely with the regulatory authorities in order to make sure we do have a vaccine as fast as possible, a vaccine accessible for everybody in a safe manner and with the required quality. It is certainly a challenge. On top of working closely with the WHO, we have decided to support CEPI with 10 million CHF and the Vaccine Alliance (GAVI).

Is this reluctance also linked to Switzerland's large pharma presence?

We should not forget that in the process of bringing a discovery to the market and making it accessible for everybody, the private sector plays a very important role. I would not say there is a tension between different interests. We do feel a strong commitment to act together. It is something we have to do hand in hand.

On an independent evaluation of the international health response coordinated by the WHO?

Every crisis brings about a lessons learnt process. We are committed to have this discussion. At the moment, we are still dealing with the pandemic. Having an assessment is very important, we will support it but it will have to happen when we are able to proceed so in a serious and effective way.

What form should take the evaluation?

The involvement of the members states will be important. WHO is about its member states: they are the ones who give the organization its mandate and make sure it’s implemented in a proper way.

Was Switzerland in favor of Taiwan’s participation as a WHA observer ?

There was no vote on this issue. We regret that the pragmatic compromise solution reached in 2009 with Taiwan participating in the World Health Assembly as an observer, could not be continued in recent years. Health has no borders, this pandemic clearly shows it. We need to work together and exchange information to respond to such health challenges in the best way. This should be as much as possible free from political considerations

Any impact of the tension between China and the US on the debates?

We do rely on multilateralism to find the right answers to the challenges we are facing. Without international cooperation, we cannot answer properly on the broad range of issues we face, such as access to medical products, material, data sharing, coordination at the borders, taking the right measures, comparing and adjusting them... For Switzerland it is vital to find common rules and regulations and to respect them in order to protect the population worldwide. We need to have a universal health protection architecture, respected by all the countries.

Three highlights of this assembly?

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom saying that, to answer the question “What sort of world do we want” we have to answer the one about “What sort of WHO do we want”. The universal underlining of the importance of working together and of international cooperation. The fact that it is time for humility.