Countries Agree on Process to Amend International Health Regulations Governing Pandemics
The working group on amending the IHR met in Geneva last week (20-24 Februar 2023).

After five days of discussions last week on how to amend the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Health Regulations to make them more able to combat future pandemics, the international working group has “agreed on a way forward”, according to the WHO.

WHO member states have proposed 307 amendments, and much of last week’s meeting was taken up by explanations of these.

While the regulations set out common approaches and obligations for countries to prepare for, and respond to, disease outbreaks, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed many weaknesses.

Behind closed doors

Much of last week’s meeting, the second of the working group, was behind closed doors, but agreement was reached on “next steps to tackle more in-depth negotiations on the proposed amendments, and plans for its next meeting running from 17-20 April”, according to WHO.

Co-Chair of the IHR Working Group, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, said in discussing amendments to the Regulations, governments focused on making their countries, and the international community, better prepared for future emergencies.

“COVID-19 showed us that having a good, strong set of International Health Regulations is essential, and showed where the current regulations need to be improved,” said Dr Bloomfield, former Director-General of Health in New Zealand, and working group co-chair. 

“The tone of the discussions and progress made during this week’s meeting clearly show that countries understand the responsibility they have to ensure this process is successful.”

Better detection

Co-chair Dr Abdullah Assiri, Saudi Arabia’s deputy health minister, said that updated regulations “will enable the world to better detect outbreaks early, and prevent them from developing into public health emergencies of international concern”. 

“Countries are in the driving seat of this process as they need to implement the IHR, deliver on the obligations, and make the key decisions needed to respond to public health threats,” said Assiri. 

“During the pandemic, the world faced the urgent need for functioning international instruments, and placed increasing importance in international organizations, such as WHO. Alongside the IHR amendments discussions, member states are also negotiating the drafting of a pandemic accord to address prevention, preparedness and response, and the fourth meeting of the inter-governmental board to consider the zero draft of the accord began on Monday and will run until 3 March.

Bloomfield described the two processes as complementary: “The efforts to update the IHR and draft a pandemic accord share a number of common themes, including the importance of equity in access to health, collaboration and capacity building,” he said. “It is important that there is consistency and alignment across the two processes.”

The IHR are legally binding on member states and create rights and obligations for countries, including the requirement to report public health events with risk of international spread to the WHO. 

They also outline the criteria for a public health emergency of international concern, WHO’s highest level of alarm under the IHR, which in turn triggers specific response actions for countries to prevent the further spread of the epidemics.

Image Credits: WHO.

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