‘Lies’ and Entrenched Positions Undermine WHO Pandemic Negotiations
INB co-chairs Precious Matsoso and Roland Driece brief the WHO executive board meeting.

Misinformation, waning interest and entrenched positions threaten the World Health Organization’s (WHO) two pandemic-related negotiations aimed at strengthening future pandemic responses, according to a briefing given to the WHO executive board meeting on Monday.

Draft agreements from the two processes – to establish a pandemic accord and to update the International Health Regulations (IHR) – are due to be presented to the World Health Assembly in May.

But agreement will only be reached if member states are prepared to compromise and push back against “fake news, lies and conspiracy theories”, said WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

A global misinformation campaign is pushing the notion that the pandemic agreement and changes to the IHR will “cede sovereignty to WHO and give the WHO Secretariat the power to impose lockdowns or vaccine mandates on countries”, said Tedros. 

“We cannot allow this milestone in global health to be sabotaged by those who spread lies, either deliberately or unknowingly. We need your support to counter these lies by speaking up at home and telling your citizens that this agreement and an amended IHR will not, and cannot, cede sovereignty to WHO and that it belongs to the member states,” he insisted.

Right-wing politicians and conspiracy theorists have been pushing an anti-WHO agenda using the pandemic negotiations for some time (see example below).

Dr Ashley Bloomfield, co-chair of the Working Group on IHR Amendments (WGIHR), called on member states to counter the “nonsense” that the pandemic negotiations are WHO power grabs rather than member state driven processes.

“It is essential that member states reiterate this point domestically and also fully support the DG and his efforts,” said Bloomfield.

He also stressed that member states need to meet the deadline “as it will take a further 18 months for any amendments to come into force”.

Mandates and flexibility

Dr Ashley Bloomfield (R) briefs the WHO executive board.

Noting that the WGIHR only had two more meetings before the May deadline, Bloomfield also urged member states “to make sure that your negotiators have both the mandate and the flexibility to achieve consensus during these last two meetings, so that we end up with changes that truly strengthen the IHR and enable more equitable and pandemic prevention preparedness and response”.

Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body (INB) negotiating the pandemic accord also has two more meetings including a mammoth two-week meeting in February, and INB co-chair Precious Matsoso said that the INB planned to update member states much more regularly about progress and problems during the next few months.

Her co-chair, Roland Driece, added that the world had learnt “the hard way.. that we were not ready to face a pandemic collectively”.

“We’re only as strong as the weakest link. It’s a cliché, but it’s true and that’s why we need to work together, help each other getting where we want to be and be as strong as possible when it comes to preparing for responding to and acting on pandemics,” said Driece.

Meanwhile, Tedros urged member states to compromise and find a middle ground as  “everyone will have to give something or no one will get anything”, said Tedros.

However, Tedros also expressed concern that there was very little time before the May deadline, and that impetus to achieve pandemic-related agreements was waning.

‘Get it done’

Dr Tedros and Dr Mike Ryan brief the WHO executive board.

Communities experienced three years of “horror” during the COVID pandemic, alongside regional horrors such as outbreaks of Lassa fever, Ebola, yellow fever and cholera, said Dr Mike Ryan, WHO Executive Director of Health Emergencies.

“Communities are struggling to deal with the constant pressure of health emergencies and,  on top of that, the fear of another pandemic,” said Ryan.

“This pandemic didn’t just affect the health sector. It ripped apart our social, economic and political systems and has become a multi-trillion-dollar problem for the world.”

The pandemic agreements need to “reduce the impact of inconsistency and incoherence between member states”. 

“Even in the midst of geopolitical disagreements over so many things around the world at the moment, I think this is one thing the world agrees on,” said Ryan.

“We just disagree on how to get there and the means. But we have one chance. This is the one opportunity we have under the leadership of the World Health Assembly to come to an agreement and I would plead with you on behalf of the health workers of the world and the communities that they serve: Get it done. Do not waste this opportunity.”

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