China Nixes Proposal to Grant WHO Rapid Access to Outbreak Sites in Critical Talks About Pandemic Response  
WHA special session in Geneva in November 2021 meets in a hybrid form to approve negotiations on a new global Pandemic Accord.

China wants to delete language supporting rapid World Health Organization (WHO) access to outbreak sites in future pandemics from a critical document that maps out a way forward in future pandemics, a diplomatic source has told Health Policy Watch.

This emerged at Monday’s start of a three-day meeting in Geneva of the global body’s Working Group on Strengthening WHO Preparedness and Response to Health Emergencies (WGPR).

The WHO working group is negotiating over an  interim draft report summing up 131 proposals from member states, four panels and various committees on how to improve global pandemic preparedness and response.

The draft report, which also zeroes in on vaccine and medicines equity, pathogen sharing, stronger “One-Health” approaches, and “adequate and sustainable financing” for WHO, is to go before the WHO Executive Board’s 150th session, 24-59 January, for “guidance”.  Further rounds of talks are then planned for February, March and April before a final version is submitted to the 75th World Health Assembly (WHA), set for 22-28 May. 

The final report, presuming it is approved by the WHA, would then form the backbone for future intergovernmental negotiations on a new global pandemic accord. A special November session of the World Health Assembly agreed to move ahead on intergovernmental negotiations over a new legal instrument to govern preparedness and response to future pandemic threats.  

Along with China veto, other parts of draft riddled with additions and deletions 

Colin McIff, USA co-chair, along with Indonesia, of the Working Group on Strengthening WHO Preparedness and Response to Health Emergencies (WGPR)

However, in the first day of discussions, China took exception to the suggestion that the WHO should have rapid access to “relevant sites during an outbreak to facilitate public health investigations”, particularly ”explicit power to investigate”, according to diplomatic sources.

China requested Paragraph 11 (d) be deleted altogether from the report, so as to wipe out any reference at all to the issue, the diplomatic source told Health Policy Watch. It was backed by Syria, sources said.

The paragraph states in full: “The four panels and committees came to the same conclusions regarding the need for WHO access to relevant sites during an outbreak to facilitate public health investigations.  However, there was divergence over the means by which this should be implemented: some advocated that WHO should be given explicit power to investigate, while others suggested that WHO be limited to offering immediate technical support to the concerned Member State(s).

“On this topic, there has been some discussion within WGPR on this as a critical gap that needs to be addressed, while several Member States have also cautioned the need to move forward in a way that fully respects national sovereignty.”

The draft text published Monday appeared sure to undergo further significant revisions – as member states entered dozens of other proposed additions and deletions in bracketed texts, color-coded in green, sources said. 

Since WHA decisions are customarily approved by consensus, opposition by just one or two countries to a concrete measure – like onsite inspections of outbreaks – can thwart approval altogether.  

Other key recommendations in the draft report include stronger action to ensure: 

  • Timely sharing of pathogens and genomic sequencing data;
  • Sustainable financing for pandemic preparedness; 
  • A “One Health” approach to preparedness that recognizes how environmental degradation, animal health and zoonotic diseases can feed outbreaks; 
  • “Equitable and timely access to countermeasures, including personal protective equipment, diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines;”
  • More investments in R&D along with “effective and scalable supply chains”;
  • “Timely technology transfer”, including knowledge sharing. 

The recommendations were drawn from a series of external reviews of pandemic responses conducted over the last year. These include reports by: the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, the Review Committee on the International Health Regulations (IHR) during the COVID-19 Response, and the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee for the WHO Health Emergencies Programme.

China also standing fast on its refusal to allow further investigation of SARS-CoV2

Zeng Yixin, Vice Minister of the National Health Commission, at a press conference on 23 July 2021, slamming proposals for another WHO mission to China to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV2.

China has long been at odds with the WHO and member states, and particularly the United States, over its refusal to allow a second phase of on-site investigation into the origins of the SARS-CoV2 – in Wuhan and elsewhere. 

It also has refused a panel of scientists convened by the WHO access to Chinese medical and other records related to the outbreak in Wuhan.

In July, Zeng Yixin, China’s Vice Minister of the National Health Commission, described the WHO’s proposal for a more rigorous Phase II investigation of the origins of the SARS-CoV2 virus, including renewed consideration that the virus may have escaped from a laboratory, as “impossible” at a press conference.   

“We will not accept such an origin-tracing plan as it, in some aspects, disregards common sense and defies science,” said Zeng at the press conference organized by the Chinese State Council Information Office. 

Pandemic ‘instrument’ agreement

The working group of WHO member states, co-chaired by Indonesia’s Ambassador Grata Endah Werdaningtyas and the USA’s Colin McIff, deputy director of Global Affairs in the US Department of Health and Human Services, was widely credited with brokering last year’s historic agreement on the need for a global instrument to improve the world’s response to future pandemics.

Virtually all 194 member states committed to negotiating a new global accord to guide the response to future global pandemics at the WHO’s World Health Assembly Special Session (WHASS).

Equity recommendations also a lightning rod

The reference to on-site investigations was not the only clause in dispute in the report today. 

Most other paragraphs in the draft report were also being red-marked extensively, with proposed additions and deletions by various member states. 

Section 12 (d) addresses equity, for instance, and the draft Working Group report states that “Member States agree that equity is critically important for global health both as a principle and as an outcome”.

“Member States emphasized that equity is essential in particular in prevention, preparedness and response to health emergencies, including with respect to capacity-building, equitable and timely access to and distribution of medical countermeasures and addressing barriers to timely access to and distribution of medical countermeasures,” the report notes.

It also noted that “related issues such as research and development, intellectual property, technology transfer and empowering/scaling up local and regional manufacturing capacity during emergencies to discover, develop and deliver effective medical countermeasures and other tools and technologies,” were important.

A civil society representative monitoring the session indicated that the United States wanted to add the word “voluntary” sharing of licenses “on mutually agreed terms” to that text. Low-income countries such as Ghana, meanwhile, stressed that “equity is a priority” as member states ploughed word by word through the language. 

The equity language is additionally charged in light of the ongoing push by over 100 countries, led by India and South Africa, to approve a waiver of intellectual property rules in the World Trade Organization that would also facilitate more compulsory forms of tech transfer during the pandemic.  

In addition, Argentina pointed out that there needs to be stronger equity rules around the sharing of pathogens, from which new vaccines and medicines are typically developed. 

It proposed that the text on equity include reference to “the fair, and just participation in the derived benefits of the use of the exchange of pathogens”. 

Image Credits: China Daily.

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