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The World Health Organization’s response to potential pandemics

FILE PHOTO: The World Health Organization logo is pictured at the entrance of the WHO building, in Geneva, Switzerland, December 20, 2021. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

The World Health Organization will begin negotiations on new guidelines for coping with pandemics on Thursday, with a goal date of May 2024 for a treaty to be adopted by the U.N. health agency’s 194 member countries.

The news: Following the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 6.2 million people in two years, various reviewers have submitted more than 200 recommendations for strengthening the world’s defences against new infections.

FILE PHOTO: Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), attends a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland, December 20, 2021. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
  • An independent panel classified the WHO as “underpowered” when COVID-19 struck, with limited authorities to investigate epidemics and coordinate containment measures, prompting calls for reform.
  • Among the projects that could determine the future of the 74-year-old agency is a Washington-led push to establish a worldwide pandemic prevention fund housed by the World Bank.
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) has previously established enforceable guidelines known as the International Health Regulations (2005), which outline countries’ responsibilities when public health events have the potential to cross boundaries. These include notifying the WHO right away in the event of a health emergency, as well as trade and travel restrictions.
  • These laws, which were enacted following the SARS outbreak in 2002/3, are currently seen as adequate for regional epidemics such as Ebola but insufficient for a worldwide pandemic.
  • The sharing of data and genomic sequences of new viruses, as well as regulations for equitable vaccination distribution, are among the suggested recommendations for the alliance.
  • The European Union is pressing for a ban on wildlife trade as well as incentives for reporting novel viruses or variations.
FILE PHOTO: Boxes containing medicine donated from World Health Organisation are seen in Beirut, Lebanon September 17, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

What’s going on: The WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has set an August deadline for member states to decide on an initial version of the treaty. In May, he is expected to be re-elected unopposed for a second term.

  • It would be only the second such health agreement, following the 2003 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a legally binding pact aimed at reducing smoking through taxing, labelling, and advertising regulations.
  • The EU proposed the deal and is its strongest supporter with Britain, Indonesia, Kenya, and others joining it.
  • The US will participate in the discussions, but has expressed opposition to a binding treaty. India and Brazil have also expressed concerns.
  • With so many countries involved, reaching an agreement will be difficult.

What’s important: The pact is classified as an “instrument” by WHO because its legal nature has yet to be determined. There are three sorts of instruments: recommendations, rules, and conventions. Unless members expressly reject, regulations are immediately legally binding for them.

  • It’s unclear how the 2005 regulations will interact with the new pandemic accord.
  • One option is that they should be complimentary, with existing norms governing local outbreaks and the treaty response kicking in only if the WHO declares a pandemic, which it presently lacks the authority to do.
  • It’s unclear whether or not negotiators will include compliance measures like fines. This week, separate discussions on a US initiative to alter the 2005 rules are taking place.
  • The White House’s recommendations aim to increase openness and give the World Health Organization (WHO) faster access to outbreak sites. Several officials believe they are overly ambitious, with China and others expected to object on national sovereignty grounds.
  • China did allow WHO-led expert teams to visit the COVID-19 epicentre in Wuhan, but the WHO believes clinical data from early cases that could reveal the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is still being withheld.
  • Another working group of WHO member states is debating changes to the WHO finance system to make it more sustainable and flexible in the event of a pandemic.
  • Until now, the United States, which was the WHO’s leading donor prior to the outbreak, has rejected attempts to boost member countries’ annual contributions.
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