Tedros Secures Europe’s Help to Boost WHO Pandemic Capacity Ahead of WHA
Keva Bain of the Bahamas and WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

Strengthening the World Health Organization’s pandemic response is a key focus of the 74th World Health Assembly, which started on Monday – and WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has already secured agreements with powerful European member states to do just that.

WHA discussion on a report from the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness is expected on Tuesday., which details the slow, antiquated pandemic response mechanisms of the under-resourced global body. 

To bolster international pandemic surveillance, Switzerland will provide a biosafety laboratory in Spiez for a WHO BioHub Facility. This laboratory will share pathogens with global laboratories and other partners, according to a WHO announcement Monday.

“The facility will serve as a centre for the safe receipt, sequencing, storage and preparation of biological materials for distribution to other laboratories, in order to inform risk assessments and sustain global preparedness against these pathogens,” the announcement said.

Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset addressed the WHA opening session, expressing support for “predictable, independent funding” for the WHO and a pandemic treaty to “enhance and strengthen the role of the WHO, and also to ensure better implementation of the International Health Regulations.”

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that a WHO Academy to train health workers would open its doors in Lyon in 2023. Macron also stressed the importance of ensuring that the WHO’s funding  was “more sustainable, more predictable, and less dependent on several big donors”.

In addition, said Macron, WHO needs “rapid response missions” with access to all territories to investigate pathogens that might lead to a pandemic. This follows unhappiness with how long it took China to admit a WHO-led team into Wuhan to research the origin of SARS-CoV2.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her country’s support for a pandemic treaty as well as a Global Health Threats Council to monitor member states’ adherence to international health regulations. Earlier this month, Germany and the WHO announced the establishment of a global hub in Berlin to gather data on pandemics and epidemic intelligence.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Push to Vaccinate 10% by September

When Tedros addressed the assembly, he was characteristically frank: “There is no diplomatic way to say it: a small group of countries that make and buy the majority of the world’s vaccines control the fate of the rest of the world.

“The number of doses administered globally so far would have been enough to cover all health workers and older people, if they had been distributed equitably,” he added. “We could have been in a much better situation.”

He then appealed to all member states to “support a massive push to vaccinate at least 10% of the population of every country by September, and a drive to achieve our goal of vaccinating at least 30% by the end of the year.” 

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the COVID-19 pandemic as bringing a  “tsunami of suffering.” He noted the costs of 4 million lives, 500 million jobs and trillions of dollars in economic and industrial impacts.

Guterres reiterated his call made at Friday’s G20 Global Health Summit for a task force that “brings together all countries with vaccine production capacity, WHO, ACT Accelerator, its partners and essential financial institutions able to deal with the pharmaceutical companies”.

The aim, Gutteres added, would be to double global vaccine production by exploring “all options — from voluntary licences and technology transfers to patent pooling and flexibility for intellectual property rights”.

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, who also co-chairs the ACT Accelerator, decried the “huge divide in the provision of COVID-19 vaccines… [M]illions of people in wealthier nations have been vaccinated while billions of people in poorer countries still wait & are vulnerable to infection.”

Ramaphosa also expressed support for a global health council to collaborate with WHO to support regional and national pandemic response mechanisms.

Appeal for Travel Restrictions to be Eased

Meanwhile, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda Gaston Brown stressed how difficult it was for small island states that suffered massive economic losses to buy vaccines through COVAX because they were deemed middle-income countries. Brown appealed for access to COVAX vaccines to be relaxed, and for travel restrictions and access to be eased.

Reiterating Spain’s commitment to sharing vaccines with Latin American countries, the country’s Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, proposed a public-private partnership between airlines, governments and international organisations to facilitate vaccine distribution.

Dechen Wangmo, Minister of Health of Bhutan

Dechen Wangmo, Minister of Health of Bhutan, was elected president of the WHA, which is the main governing body of the WHO, and will steer the complex discussions until the assembly ends next Tuesday. 

Over 70 health issues are on the agenda, from COVID-19 response and preparedness to mental health; patient safety; non-communicable diseases; antimicrobial resistance; health workforces; laboratory biosafety; violence against women, girls and children; finances; and the health-related 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

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