WHO Kicks Off Assembly To Better Prepare The World In Case Of Another Outbreak

ABC News

Member countries inaugurated the World Health Organization’s (WHO) annual assembly on Monday with the primary aim of enhancing global preparedness for future deadly outbreaks akin to COVID-19. This assembly comes on the heels of a setback with the proposed “pandemic treaty,” which encountered significant roadblocks last week.

In the face of a waning COVID-19 pandemic, health officials are urgently pushing for global consensus on new strategies to brace for and combat inevitable future pandemics. The urgency is compounded by competing global crises such as climate change and geopolitical conflicts, which are vying for public attention and resources.

A bold initiative to finalize a pandemic treaty during this week’s World Health Assembly was postponed last Friday after two and a half years of diligent efforts hit an impasse. The primary sticking points were disagreements over the sharing of pathogen information and the technologies necessary to combat pandemics.

Experts believe the assembly’s best opportunity to address future pandemics lies in proposed amendments to the WHO’s International Health Regulations, established in 2004. These amendments are designed to encourage nations to enhance their alert, detection, and containment capacities and to foster international cooperation.

One significant proposal under consideration would empower the WHO director-general to declare a “pandemic emergency,” a move that could streamline and expedite global responses to emerging threats.

Diplomats indicate that an agreement is within reach, although similar disputes between affluent and developing nations, which previously stalled the pandemic treaty negotiations, persist. Central issues include the proposed “transfer of technology” and the establishment of a new fund under the WHO by 2030. This fund aims to bolster pandemic response capacities, especially in developing countries, where resources are often scarce.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has maintained that the temporary suspension of the pandemic treaty negotiations does not signify a failure. He acknowledged the enormity of the task and the ambitious timeline, noting that it typically takes many years for U.N. member countries to ratify global treaties.

“Of course, we all wish that we had been able to reach a consensus on the agreement in time for this health assembly and cross the finish line,” Tedros remarked in his opening address. “But I remain confident that you still will — because where there is a will, there is a way.”

Tedros emphasized that the solution now lies in the hands of the World Health Assembly delegates. “It’s now for this World Health Assembly to decide what that way is — meaning the solution is in your hands,” he added.

The central tenet of the assembly’s discussions is the recognition that pathogens, which disregard national borders, necessitate a unified global response. However, decision-makers face the challenge of balancing national interests with the broader call from WHO officials to prioritize humanity’s collective welfare.

Health ministers are now tasked with bridging deep-seated differences, particularly regarding the global sharing of information on emerging pathogens and the equitable distribution of scarce resources like vaccines during surges in demand.

“If nothing comes out of WHA (the assembly), it’s a huge missed opportunity,” said Yuanqiong Hu, a senior legal and policy adviser at Doctors Without Borders. “If they don’t come up with a clear road map, how are they going to finish this process?”

As the assembly progresses, the world watches closely, hoping for a consensus that will pave the way for stronger, more coordinated responses to future pandemics. The stakes are high, and the decisions made in this forum will shape the global health landscape for years to come.