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World Health Assembly opens after pandemic treaty negotiations stall

In this June, 24, 2020, file photo, a man sells face masks for use to curb the spread of the coronavirus outside a makeshift shop in Harare, Zimbabwe.
In this June, 24, 2020, file photo, a man sells face masks for use to curb the spread of the coronavirus outside a makeshift shop in Harare, Zimbabwe. Copyright Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Euronews with AP
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The head of the World Health Organization on Monday voiced confidence that countries would one day reach a deal on a pandemic accord.

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The World Health Organization (WHO) opened its annual meeting on Monday with government ministers and other top envoys hoping to reinforce global preparedness for the next pandemic.

But the most ambitious project, to adopt a pandemic “treaty,” has been shelved for now after more than two years of work failed to produce a draft that countries could unite around by last week.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus insisted it was not a failure, saying the task was "immense" with member states operating on a “very ambitious timeline".

He said negotiators underwent sleepless nights, adding that a "torrent of mis- and disinformation" undermined efforts.

"Of course, we all wish that we had been able to reach a consensus on the agreement in time for this health assembly and crossed the finish line, but I remain confident that you still will because where there is a will, there is a way," Tedros said.

Delegates arrive for the opening of the 77th World Health Assembly (WHA77) at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, May 27, 2024.
Delegates arrive for the opening of the 77th World Health Assembly (WHA77) at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, May 27, 2024.Salvatore Di Nolfi/' KEYSTONE / SALVATORE DI NOLFI

WHO officials and others have been eager to build on the momentum of concern from the COVID-19 pandemic, with the risk that the more it fades into history, the less the public and governments will be interested in preparing for future pandemics.

Decision-makers have struggled to balance national interest with the call from WHO officials to think more broadly in the interest of humanity and equity as pathogens impact the globe.

Increasing criticism from right-wing activists had claimed the treaty would undermine sovereignty, an assertion that the WHO strongly refutes.

Health ministers will now have to take up the work and try to overcome deep-set differences, including how the world can share information on emerging pathogens and scarce resources like vaccines and masks when demand skyrockets.

'Once-in-a-generation opportunity'

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, speaking by video, called the pandemic accord a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to make sure the global health systems respond faster and more equitably in the next outbreak and urged delegates to back amendments to the international health as a way to boost the response to emergencies.

“Amidst the legal arguments and endless negotiation for the pandemic treaty, let us remember that the heart of the health care is not just policies and programs, it is about our shared humanity,” Thailand’s Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said via a video feed.

Instead of a pandemic treaty, the best shot now for bulking up the international health architecture to fight such cross-border outbreaks is through amendments to the nearly two-decades-old International Health Regulations, which countries have “in principle” agreed to, Tedros said last week.

Those regulations focus on helping countries detect and respond to health emergencies.

For example, envoys to the assembly could establish the concept of a “pandemic emergency” to build on and refine the cumbersome category of Public Health Emergency of International Concern, which is currently WHO’s highest level of alert for dangerous epidemics.

Such a term could help inform the public at a time when, as with COVID-19, confusion and uncertainty are widespread.

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