Delegates Agree to Tighten Pandemic Regulations, Get Reality Check from Civil Society
EB chairperson Dr Patrick Amoth

While three independent review panels concur that the response of the World Health Organization (WHO) to COVID-19 was inadequate, member states made slow progress in charting better alternatives at the executive board meeting on Wednesday.

WHO members are considering three main proposals to improve the global body’s future pandemic preparedness: 

Amid the repetitive hot air that characterised much of Wednesday’s pandemic discussion, US representative Loyce Pace’s clarity and brevity made a welcome change.

“All of the review panels recognise the slow response globally in the early days of this pandemic, and establishing a standing committee is in our view, a commonsense way for the executive board to be more prepared for both current and future health emergencies,” said Pace.

She identified four priorities to prepare the WHO for future pandemics: first, targeted IHR amendments; second, a review of recommendations made by the Working Group on Pandemic Response (WGPR); third, setting up the intergovernmental negotiating body to develop an instrument on pandemic preparedness and finally improving WHO governance “starting with an informal group and then establishing a task team of Member States to work with the Secretariat”. 

“We call upon all member states to dedicate time, resources and efforts to improve WHO governance issues,” she added.

Standing Committee is Stalled

Australia’s Travis Power

The proposed standing committee, reporting to the board, would kick in automatically as soon as the Director-General declared a health emergency, and it could facilitate the immediate transfer of information between the Secretariat and member states, said Austria’s Dr Clemens Martin Auer.

Australia stressed that the standing committee “should focus on governance for the health emergencies programme, allowing for in-depth discussion and reporting to the EB” and it “should not encroach on the technical advisory and leadership roles of the Director-General and the IHR Emergency Committee”.

In response, Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that such a committee would be helpful, particularly as the board only meets twice a year. However, a handful of countries indicated that they weren’t yet ready to support the resolution so it was stalled.

Agreement to amend International Health Regulations

The Working Ground on Pandemic Response (WGPR), chaired by the US and Indonesia, has been charged with overseeing the process of discussing targeted amendments to the IHR. IHR amendments are expected to address equity, technology governance other gaps.

“The US led an exclude inclusive and transparent process to develop this decision as we are mindful that updating and modernising the IHR is critical to ensuring the world is better prepared for and can respond to the next pandemic,” said Pace.

“The United States formally transmitted its proposals for targeted amendments to the IHS last updated in 2005 to the Director General consistent with IHR article 55 for circulation to states parties at least four months in advance of the World Health Assembly.”

While supporting IHR amendments, Russia’s delegate, Mikhail Murashko, said that these “should not undermine the sovereignty of countries or regions in ensuring health and or biological security”. 

“We reject any proposals which could be used as grounds for interfering in the international affairs of nations, including the holding of international investigations on the basis of rumours and information unconfirmed by states,” said Russia, a reiteration of China’s concerns.

Russia wants IHR amendments to address “improving the priority infrastructure, developing regional and global networks, increasing cooperation between countries on implementing the rules and ensuring free movement of medical staff and technology to fight infections”.

Russia also called for member states to “work harder to fight the distribution of false and unreliable information because this prevents effective scientifically based measures being taken to fight epidemic outbreaks and it undermines international cooperation.” Ironically, Russia has been identified as a key source of COVID-19 misinformation aimed at undermining “Western” vaccines.

Reality check from civil society

KEI’s Thiru Balasubramaniam

The key discussions on an effective pandemic instrument will take place in the intergovernmental negotiating body, which is in the process of being set up. The EU announced that a Dutch official would lead its region, while South Africa indicated it had been nominated for this task by the Africa region.

A wide range of civil society groups breathed some reality into Wednesday’s discussions, reminding delegates that the world was still in the grips of a pandemic and that citizens of the world had been failed by inadequate sharing of rights and know-how on government-funded technologies; bottlenecks in vaccine delivery; and more broadly by health services that have been unable to deliver sexual and reproductive health services and ongoing treatment for people with non-communicable diseases.

“The WHO negotiations on a pandemic treaty are not a quick fix to the current pandemic, but they offer a much more comprehensive and potentially useful response going forward, including for the next pandemics,” said Knowledge Ecology International’s Thiru Balasubramaniam.

He called for delegates to “address policy failures that have accompanied the current pandemic response, and create a better global framework for cooperation”, including “sharing of rights and know-how from government-funded technologies, mandatory intellectual property exceptions, global norms for financing R&D in both the preparatory and crisis stages, and concrete obligations for transparency”.

KEI also called for reforms to the funding and management of clinical trials “so that the public has transparent and unbiased information on the relative effectiveness and safety of countermeasures”.

Pharma leaders, from their side, acknowledged: “society needs to do more and go further, urgently addressing the bottlenecks in vaccine administration while, reflecting on how to achieve ore equitable allocation faster in the future. Manufacturers, governments, academia, NGOs and other global health institutions have a collective responsibility to ensure that no one is left behind in this pandemic and the next outbreak.”

But the statement by the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) stressed that private sector collaborations had been critical to the rapid development of new vaccines and treatments, adding that the world should “enhance not hinder the thriving innovation eco-system while building a resilient, sufficiently-resourced, health infrastructure.”

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