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WHO special session kicks off amid concern over new Covid variant

WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. (KEYSTONE/AFP POOL/Fabrice COFFRINI)

A three-day special session of the World Health Assembly (WHA) kicked off on Monday to discuss pandemic preparedness and response amid concerns over the spread of the new Covid-19 variant Omicron.

The hybrid meeting convened at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva and online aims to create a new instrument to redress the key weaknesses in the global response to the virus and prepare for future crises.

“Covid-19 has exposed and exacerbated fundamental weaknesses in the global architecture for pandemic preparedness and response,” said WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the opening session.

“Global health security is too important to be left to chance, or goodwill, or shifting geopolitical currents, or the vested interests of companies and shareholders,” he continued. “The best way we can address them is with a legally binding agreement between nations; an accord forged from the recognition that we have no future but a common future.”

Read also: Meeting on pandemic treaty in Geneva calls for tough decisions.

Member states finally reached a consensus on a draft resolution to negotiate a future agreement on preventing pandemics on Sunday, which is now currently under review by the 194 countries who make up the WHO.

The draft document calls for the creation of a negotiating group to draft the agreement, which would be expected to be ready in May 2024. It would cover issues such as sharing of data and genome sequences of emerging viruses, and of any potential vaccines and drugs.

"This decision, to establish a negotiating body on a future pandemic agreement, may only be the end of the beginning, but the flexibility shown and the breadth of support is a good portent for the vital efforts to come," Simon Manley, the UK’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said in a statement ahead of the meeting.

Read also: World must agree pandemic treaty, and strengthen WHO, experts warn.

Some 70 countries including the UK and the EU had pushed for a legally-binding treaty, but a number of countries including the United States, India, Japan and Pakistan were reluctant to commit last week. Many including the US have since joined the treaty initiative as co-sponsors along with all 54 member states of the African Group. China and Russia, however, were absent.

The session comes as countries bring in fresh travel restrictions to halt the spread of the variant, including Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the European Union, the United States and Japan, which joined Israel by closing its borders in the strictest measures yet since the discovery of Omicron.

Dr Tedros said the spread of Omicron was a “test of our collective ability to respond to future pandemics” and highlighted key flaws in the world’s current approach.

“The emergence of the highly-mutated Omicron variant underlines just how perilous and precarious our situation is. South Africa and Botswana should be thanked for detecting, sequencing and reporting this variant, not penalised,” he said.

“Indeed, Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics: our current system disincentivizes countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores.”

He also criticised the inequitable distribution of vaccines, saying access for all was necessary to limit the spread of the virus and its mutations. More than 80 per cent of the world’s vaccines have gone to G20 countries, while low-income countries – most of which are in Africa – have received just 0.6 per cent of all vaccines.

“In less than a year, almost eight billion vaccines have been administered around the world – the largest vaccination campaign in history. But a year ago, as we began to see some countries striking bilateral deals with manufacturers, we warned that the poorest and most vulnerable would be trampled in the global stampede for vaccines,” he said. “But vaccine equity is not charity; it’s in every country’s best interests.”

Dr Tedros’ words were echoed by Jagan Chapagain, Secretary General of the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), speaking ahead of the meeting. “Public health emergencies are our past, our present, and we will face them again,” he said in a statement.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is not over, yet two years on we are still overly reactive and uncoordinated. Variants, like Omicron, will continue to emerge while the virus continues to circulate. Vaccine, data and knowledge equity are key to protecting the global population.”

President Xi Jinping of China offered one billion Covid-19 vaccine doses to Africa on Monday in a speech made to a China-Africa summit in Senegal’s capital Dakar. The leader said his country would donate 600 million doses directly, with 400 million coming from other sources.

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres said he was “deeply concerned” over wealthy countries' travel restrictions brought in on Africa in response to the Omicron variant, and appealed to governments to bring in testing for travellers and other “effective measures” to avoid “the risk of transmission so as to allow for travel and economic engagement. ”

“As I have long warned, low vaccine rates are a breeding ground for variants,” he said in a statement. “The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa - and they should not be penalised for identifying and sharing crucial science and health information with the world.”