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World Health Assembly resolves to strengthen WHO and emergency response

The virtual World Health Assembly nerve centre at WHO’s Geneva headquarters, with only a skeletal staff around the table, due to the pandemic.

The World Health Assembly (WHA) on Tuesday approved a resolution that makes a sweeping call to member states to strengthen their global preparedness for health emergencies, with support from the World Health Organization (WHO).

The resolution asks countries to reinvigorate their systems of emergency preparedness, vulnerability assessment, alert, response, and compliance, in line with the 2005 International Health Regulations (IHR), which are a binding legal framework.

The new resolution also asks WHO to come up with proposals by next year’s WHA for “possible complementary mechanisms to be used by the Director General to alert the global community about the severity and/or magnitude of a public health emergency, in order to mobilize necessary support and facilitate international coordination.”

In plain language, member states are considering adding an “amber alert” to the current IHR system by which WHO could signal that a public health emergency is developing – even before it becomes a full blown “red light” signaling a “public health emergency of international concern”.

Geopolitical divide between reformists and backers of the status quo. Tuesday’s debate, however, was also seen as a warm-up for more far-reaching reform proposals that may be in the offing next year, following the completion of several independent reviews of the global pandemic response that the WHA mandated in May, and are now underway.

A bloc of G-7 countries, led by Germany, France and the United States, want to revise the legal IHR framework - to strengthen data transparency and early reporting requirements binding countries. They aim to ensure that WHO can access data on new and emerging disease threats faster and more easily.

Those proposals come in the wake of claims that China withheld key information about the spread of the novel coronavirus in the early days of the Wuhan outbreak - which hampered the global response.  Russia, Pakistan and China, on the other hand, suggested no such changes in the IHR system are needed; and such reforms could even encroach on countries’ sovereignty.

The WHA session saw considerable push and pull between reform-minded US and European allies on the one hand, and China and Russia on the other, over the extent to which the IHR system should be revised.

“The US along with its G7 partners initiated discussions on WHO strengthening and reform in early 2020,” said Garrett Grigsby, director of Global Affairs for the US Department of Health and Human Services. “Several member states have since put forward proposals that reflect our shared values,” he said, noting that the US had put forward a “roadmap” for reform, also being supported by Brazil.

On the other side of the divide, Russia stated that major revisions in the IHR legal mandates should be avoided and Pakistan expressed fears that stronger requirements could also infringe on countries' sovereignty:

Said the Russian WHA delegate: “We need to use the experience accumulated in combating the pandemic to strengthen existing multilateral instruments of cooperation in combating epidemics including the International Health Regulations, but not to revise them.”

China added, “We firmly support WHO's leadership role and the framework of the IHR, adding only that“ all parties should “effectively implement the requirements of the IHR and… work together to maintain global health security.”

The tensions, framed by the same geopolitical divides that plague multilateral efforts more generally, leave questions about what kind of truly far-reaching reforms could really be achieved that might help head off a future pandemic.

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