The head of the World Health Organization has called for speedily launching global negotiations to agree on an international treaty on pandemic preparedness, as part of sweeping reforms envisioned by member states.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, told its annual ministerial assembly on Monday that the United Nations health agency faced a “serious challenge” to maintain its COVID-19 response at the current level and required sustainable and flexible funding.
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Earlier in the day, health ministers agreed to study recommendations for ambitious reforms made by independent experts to strengthen the capacity of both the WHO and countries to contain new viruses.
The ministers from the WHO’s 194 member states will meet from November 29 to decide whether to launch negotiations on the pandemic treaty.
“The one recommendation I believe will do the most to strengthen WHO and global health security is the recommendation of a treaty on pandemic preparedness and response which could also strengthen relations between member states and foster cooperation. This is an idea whose time has come,” Tedros said.
In his closing remarks at the WHO’s virtual annual health assembly, Tedros said the “lack of sharing of data, information, pathogens, technologies and resources” was a defining characteristic of the pandemic.
“A [pandemic] treaty would foster improved sharing, trust and accountability, and provide the solid foundation on which to build other mechanisms for global health security.”
Only two international treaties have previously been negotiated under the auspices of the WHO in its 73-year history: the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2003 and the International Health Regulations in 2005.
The coronavirus has infected more than 170 million people and killed nearly 3.6 million, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.
More funding for WHO
On the final day of the week-long assembly, the WHO member states agreed in a 14-page resolution to “strengthen WHO’s capacity to rapidly and appropriately assess disease outbreaks” of possible global concern.
“It’s essential that we strengthen global (disease) surveillance and provide the World Health Organization with the authority and the capacity to do this important job for all the peoples of the world,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the assembly.
According to the findings of three independent panels that had reported to the assembly, countries and institutions had been woefully unprepared to deal with COVID-19. They called for a total overhaul of the global alarm system, and for a stronger, more independent WHO to help avert future pandemics.
One of the reports found that the UN agency had been too slow in declaring a so-called Public Health Emergency of International Concern. WHO sounded its highest level of alert on January 30, 2020.
After days of discussion, members agreed to create a new working group to study and streamline the numerous recommendations in the reports, and create concrete proposals for next year’s assembly to consider.
The text called for member states to “ensure the adequate, flexible, sustainable and predictable financing of WHO’s programme budget”.
Only about 16 percent of the WHO budget comes from regular membership fees, with the remainder coming from voluntary and heavily earmarked contributions.
Monday’s resolution also called on all countries to strengthen their core public health capacities, increase their ability to detect new threats and communicate such threats effectively both at home and internationally.
WHO’s emergencies director, Mike Ryan, welcomed the decisions, saying: “Right now the pathogens have the upper hand, they are emerging more frequently and often silently in a planet that is out of balance.
“We need to turn that very thing that has exposed us in this pandemic, our interconnectedness, we need to turn that into a strength,” he said.
Chile’s ambassador Frank Tressler Zamorano said on behalf of 60 countries that a pandemic treaty would help “heed the call by so many experts to reset the system”.
The resolution, meanwhile, stopped short of explicitly backing the experts’ recommendation to hand the WHO broader powers to launch investigations or communicate about health threats without waiting for a green light from the countries concerned.