Germany Promotes Stronger Role for WHO in Next Pandemic
German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, left, and WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speak to reporters at WHO’s headquarters.

Germany’s top health official put in a pitch for the UN health agency to play a stronger role in the next pandemic, which is exactly the aim of a global pandemic treaty.

A day after the World Health Organization (WHO) released an initial proposal for a global pandemic treaty, German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach plugged the agency’s importance.

“One thing is very clear. The World Health Organization has played a significant part in limiting the number of people died worldwide,” he told reporters at WHO’s headquarters.

At a brief press conference Thursday on the sidelines of WHO’s Executive Board (EB) meeting, Lauterbach praised the global health body in an appearance beside WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Lauterbach’s popularity has risen and fallen

Lauterbach, whose popularity has risen and fallen with changing attitudes toward the COVID-19 pandemic, thanked Tedros for the “good cooperation” in fighting the virus. An epidemiologist by training, Lauterbach imposed a range of strict COVID measures within Germany after he took over his post in December 2021 with a new German government – and while Omicron swept the world.

As people tired of lockdowns, his stern approach was questioned and he conceded that schools and daycare centers closed for too long. He also repeatedly warned Germans against hastily pronouncing the pandemic is over – and to prepare better for the next one.

“I would like to take this opportunity to say once again,” he told reporters, “that we are the people who stuck together in solidarity, who followed the rules, who helped, who distributed vaccinations, who got vaccinated, who said we are still vaccinating – and have come through this terrible pandemic.”

WHO’s biggest donor – for a while

Until Donald Trump’s administration took a hostile approach to multilateralism, the United States was WHO’s biggest donor. However, in the 2021-2022 budget biennium, Germany stepped up to fill the gap, significantly increasing its funding to the global health agency. Germany’s overall contributions for the two year period rose to US$1.26 billion, up from US$359.2 million in 2018-2019, making it WHO’s largest donor for the two-year period.

This year’s core contribution to WHO will be €130 million (about US$124 million), he said at the briefing, pulling Germany back down a notch on the donor hierarchy.  But by some measures, such as “voluntary contributions” Germany remains WHO’s largest donor, according to WHO.  Lauterbach and Tedros, who also met privately to discuss the pandemic, agreed that WHO needs financial strengthening to cope with the next pandemic.

Lauterbach offered no direct comments on the “zero-draft” of the proposed pandemic treaty. In that treaty, WHO has proposed that nations and drug makers agree to allocate 20% of all pandemic-related products – vaccines, diagnostics, personal protective equipment and therapeutics – to the global body in the event of another pandemic, on the grounds that doing so would better ensure their equitable distribution.

No comment on 20% set-aside proposed by treaty

Ten percent of those global health products would be donated free of charge, WHO proposes, while the other 10% would be bought for an “accessible” price.

The purpose is “to enable equitable distribution, in particular to developing countries, according to public health risk and need and national plans that identify priority populations,” says the initial proposal sent to member nations.

Overall, the proposal raises other difficult questions about how to ensure global access to medical counter measures during an emergency.

The zero draft recognizes that “protection of intellectual property rights is important for the development of new medical products,” but it also calls attention to their impact on price and access, supporting “time-bound waivers of intellectual property rights” during a pandemic.  That has been cheered by medicines access advocates.

But preserving intellectual property rights has long been a sticking point for industrialized countries, such as Germany, that host large pharmaceutical industry giants. Germany opposed an IP waiver for COVID vaccines during the months of debate that raged at the World Trade Organization; a limited waiver was finally approved by the WTO last June.  A WTO decision on a parallel proposal for an IP waiver on COVID medicines and diagnostics remains outstanding.

Balancing equity issues with national priorities and industry interests are thus topics that can be expected to shadow negotiations over the treaty in the coming year.

Tedros, when asked about the treaty draft, also declined to answer, suggesting it would be impolitic of him to do so when it is WHO’s 194 member nations that must agree what to do – hopefully by May 2024 when negotiations are supposed to be concluded.

But he praised WHO’s member nations for reaching “two milestones so far” – agreeing to negotiate a legally binding agreement and producing a “breakthrough” first draft.

“And I will refrain from commenting on the draft,” he added, “because this is an intergovernmental negotiation and would like to support the process and refrain from preempting the content of the draft we have been negotiating.”

Image Credits: John Heilprin.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.