Standing Ovation as WHO Member States Commit to Negotiating New Pandemic Accord

The World Health Assembly Special Session (WHASS) closed on Wednesday with a standing ovation as virtually all 194 Member States committed to negotiating a new global accord to guide the response to future global pandemics.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, described the decision as “cause for celebration, and cause for hope, which we will need”.

While Dr Tedros warned that “there are still differences of opinion about what a new accord could or should contain”, delegates had “proven to each other and the world that differences can be overcome, and common ground can be found”.

“A convention, agreement or any other international instrument will not solve every problem, but it will provide the overarching framework to foster greater international cooperation and provide a platform for strengthening global health security,” Dr Tedros told a later press briefing.

WHO Assistant-Director-General for Health Emergencies and International Health Regulations (IHR), Dr Jaouad Mahjour, said what had emerged from over 300 recommendations was that the new pandemic would rest on four major pillars.

He identified these as governance and leadership; financing of preparedness; global mechanisms that can be activated during the crisis, and finally, equity, including equitable and timely access to goods.

WHO legal advisor Steven Solomon added that negotiating any global agreement was “complicated”. 

“What is important is that there be a transparent, inclusive and consensus-driven process among Member States to work it out,” added Solomon.

Driven by ‘almost complete consensus’

WHA Vice-Presidents Professor Benjamin Hounkpatin (Benin) and Dr Hanan Al Kuwari (Qatar)

WHASS vice-president, Qatar’s Dr Hanan Al Kuwari, praised the “near complete consensus on the path we must take”.

This path involves:

  • The WHO convening the first meeting of the intergovernmental negotiating body (INB) by 1 March 2022
  • A draft global agreement by July 2022
  • The second INB meeting by August 2022
  • Discussion of the draft agreement at the WHA in May 2023
  • Adoption of the agreement at the 2024 WHA.

However, other issues will also impact on the negotiation process. These include the working group on sustainable finance for the WHO, a proposal for a pandemic standing committee of the WHO executive board, and the call to strengthen both the WHO and the International Health Regulations (IHR) before the next World Health Assembly.

Chile’s Frank Tressler and Australia’s Sally Mansfield, the countries that chaired the informal member state negotiations that thrashed out the decision, were also upbeat about the outcome.

“Today was have taken the first step in the process that calls upon all of us to work together,” Tressler told the assembly. “Pandemics recognise no borders. It is therefore very important that we have a consensus among Member States and equity must be at the centre of our new international instrument.”

“The text before us is the product of extensive discussions, of frank exchanges and of compromises, but above all, it represents a shared commitment to an ambitious, coordinated whole-of-government and whole-of-society effort to strengthen pandemic prevention, preparedness and response,” said Mansfield. 

Australia’s Sally Mansfield

Mansfield also credited the hard work of the “Bureau” of six countries that guided a months-long review by a Working Group of member states examining the International Health Regulations (IHR) needs and gaps, headed by the US and Indonesia, for having “laid the groundwork” for the decision.

As reported earlier by Health Policy Watch, Colin McIff,  deputy director of the office of global affairs in the US Department of Health and Human Services, had been positive about the potential advantages a new treaty could offer in  light of the failings of the existing IHR legal framework.  

Speaking on behalf of the 43 Member Countries that made up the Group of Friends of the Pandemic Treaty, Costa Rica described the WHASS decision as a “turning point”.

“The challenge of distributing vaccines throughout the world, and the slow reaction to the crisis, must be dealt with at the highest level and lead to a timely, coherent and coordinated response from all member states,” said Costa Rica. 

The Group of Friends facilitated informal negotiations on the pandemic “treaty” – now being referred to as a convention, instrument and agreement – that led to speedier agreement on the current decision, and could play a similar role in the new discussions outside of the formal INB.

Why the speed, ask civil society groups

However, a group of civil society organisations have questioned the speed of the negotiations.

“The mechanics of the current treaty proposal have been enacted at full speed without a serious assessment of the reasons why the implementation of the current binding arrangement on health emergencies – the 2005 International Health Regulations – have been so broadly neglected and disregarded by all countries in the world.

“What’s the real advantage of starting a negotiation on the same topic again?” asked Nicoletta Dentico, Head of Global Health Justice Program, Society for International Development (SID) and G2H2 co-chair in a press release.

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