Germany Champions Tedros for Re-election as WHO Director General – At Deadline No Other Candidates Publicly Declared 
WH0 Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is now set to run for re-election as Germany’s nominee, backed by other European Union states, including France. 

And as nominations for the post closed today at 6 p.m. Geneva time on Thursday, it was appearing increasingly likely that the incumbent DG may run unopposed – with no other candidates visibly in the running. 

On Thursday evening, Germany made it official in a Tweet from its UN Mission in Geneva that stated: “Today September 23rd, France and Germany , in coordination with a group of EU states, nominated Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus @DrTedros for the election of the @WHO Director-General to be held in May 2022.” 

According to other reports, as many as a dozen or more EU countries were joining Germany in the nomination of Tedros – although the names of the actual candidates and their country sponsors will remain secret until early November, according to WHO election rules. 

“Yes [Germany is sponsoring] and at least 50-60% of EU countries have followed suit,” one diplomatic observer in Geneva told Health Policy Watch. 

No African country sponsors so far

Paradoxically, however, while Tedros made history as the first African to be elected to head WHO in 2017, no African country had come forward publicly as of Thursday’s deadline to offer to co-sponsor his re-election bid, alongside Germany’s EU partners. 

That, despite the fact that Tedros is regarded as highly popular on the continent – thanks partly to his outspoken positions on health equity and access to vaccines during the COVID pandemic. 

Asked about the director general’s race at a press conference on Thursday, John Nkengasong, head of Africa Centers for Disease Control, demurred, saying “I work for the African Union, so I think it would be better to wait and see what the African Union position is, and we as staff would go with that.” 

Nominated by his home country, Ethiopia, for his successful 2017 election bid, Tedros has since fallen out with the ruling government in Addis Ababa over their war with Ethiopian’s Tigray minority community – of which Tedros is also a member. 

That left him without an obvious ”home” country to sponsor his re-election bid. 

Although Tedros has never publicly confirmed his desire to stand again – it has been widely assumed that he wants to remain for a second five-year term – which is the maximum allowed.

Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, he declined again to comment on his plans.

Sino-American tensions make for rough political waters   

President Donald Trump discussing the US withdrawal from the WHO at a press conference in July 2020.

Following the outbreak of COVID, Tedros has had to steer through the increasingly rough political waters of Sino-American rivalries, exacerbated by the outspoken positions of Donald Trump – who in spring 2020 repeatedly accused Tedros of being soft on China, and in the pockets of Beijing – before announcing in July 2020 that the US would withdraw from WHO membership.

That decision was reversed right after the inauguration of US President Joe Biden in January 2021, and WHO relations with the United States have since warmed considerably – with Biden’s Chief Medical Advisor, Anthony Fauci, describing Tedros warmly as a trusted colleague and “dear friend“.  

Since that time, Tedros also began taking a much tougher line with China, sharply contrasting with the praise he bestowed in the pandemic’s early days. Tedros’ recent, explicit calls upon upon Beijing to be more transparent in the investigation of the origins of SARS-CoV2 have been closely aligned with European and US diplomatic views – who have also criticised the lack of access to critical data and information. 

The unresolved mysteries of the SARS virus origins, and its woefully  incomplete investigation, is one of those issues that will surely shadow any second term in office, as Tedros continues to tread the fault lines between Beijing and the west.  

New alliances with European partners

German Health Minister Jens Spahn appears on the same stage as Tedros at a WHO briefing in July 2021 during a high-profile visit to Geneva, underlining Germany’s support for WHO under Tedros’.

But all the while, Tedros has been steadily cultivating a new set of bilateral relations with strong European partners, including Switzerland, Germany and the United Kingdom.  

In May, for instance, Tedros announced the creation of a new WHO Biohub facility, in collaboration with the Swiss Confederation, to investigate new pathogens of concern at a high-security laboratory in Spiez.  Appearing in Berlin on 1 September, Tedros launched a new WHO Hub for Pandemic and Research Intelligence in collaboration with the German government, to be headed by a noted Nigerian scientist, Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu.  And earlier this week, Tedros named former UK Ambassador Gordon Brown as WHO’s “Ambassador for Global Health Financing“.  The series of adroit political moves have added to his credit among high-income donor countries upon which WHO depends heavily for its budget resources. 

This, in an era when voluntary contributions by rich countries now far outweigh the fixed, annual assessments to WHO’s 194 member states. And achieving a more sustainable finance base is yet another thorny issue with which Tedros will have to grapple if elected to a second term at the 75th World Health Asssembly in May 2022. 

In the meantime , if other candidates do emerge, the intervening period will also be marked by electioneering, including “candidates forums” with member states.  For the moment, however, a certain amount of suspense will remain as the names of the candidates to the WHO director general post will not be revealed for another month – only after a series of WHO regional meetings with member states are concluded, according to the re-election rules posted by WHO.

Asked why there should be such secrecy around the names of the candidates even after nominations formally closed, a WHO spokesperson refused to elaborate, saying only that it is a “well established” process. 

However, one former senior WHO official, disagreed: “Such a delay in announcing the candidate(s) is a new development in my recollection and I don’t understand why they need to wait for the end of the regional committees if the deadline is going to expire now.  I am puzzled.  If I remember correctly, both for [former WHO Director General Margaret] Chan’s reelection and Tedros’s [2017] election, the names of the candidates were published shortly after the expiry of the deadline.”  

  • Updated 24 September 

Image Credits: WHO, C-Span.

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