After weeks of punting the ball down the field, the World Health Assembly – made up of WHO’s 194 member states – appears set to meet in virtual space for the first time in its history.
And the main thing on the agenda of the proposed one-day 18 May WHA meeting, would be the COVID-19 emergency, according to a proposal by WHO’s senior leadership to its governing body.
The hot topic is almost sure to be the European Union draft proposal for a COVID-19 medicines patent pool – which aims to ensure wide and affordable access to COVID-19 diagnostics, treatments and future vaccines. Member states are already holding daily online negotiations over the draft resolution, to avoid a public show of disagreements.
In normal times, the WHA is one of the premier International Geneva events of the late spring. It consumes a full week in late May, and most of the available public spaces in the Palais des Nations, seat of the UN Offices at Geneva (UNOG), also spilling over to conference halls nearby.
Along with the often highly technical formal deliberations, the Palais is festooned with colourful exhibits as well as dozens of side events elaborating on key issues and activities of WHO and its partners – not to mention some gala receptions, both on and off campus.
The event is a “must” for most of the world’s health ministers. Countries that can afford it, also bring sizeable delegations with them to support the last-minute debates over the hottest topics of the year.
These informal sessions, usually behind-closed-doors, and often running through weekends or into the wee hours of the morning, can be quite electric. In 2015, a first-ever WHA resolution recognizing air pollution as a health and climate risk, nearly failed due to opposition by oil-producing states.
In 2019, a resolution to increase price transparency in medicines markets, was narrowly approved after a number of developed countries, notably Germany and the United Kingdom, abstained from voting.