WHO members look to pandemic preparedness as new variable emerges
Geneva The World Health Organization is seeking on Monday an international agreement to help prevent and combat future pandemics amid the emergence of a worrying new type of omicron COVID-19.
The Director-General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said there were still many doubts about the extent of transmission of severe infection by the highly mutated omicron.
Tedros joined leaders such as outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chilean President Sebastian Pinera for a long-planned and largely hypothetical special session of the UN health agency’s member states at the World Health Assembly.
The gathering aims to develop a global action plan to prevent, prepare for and respond to future epidemics.
“The emergence of a highly mutated omicron underlines the severity of our situation,” Tedros said, calling for a “legally binding” agreement not mentioned in the draft text that seeks consensus on how to move forward. “In fact, the omicron demonstrates perfectly why the world needs a new agreement on pandemics.”
“Our current system discourages countries from alerting others to the threats that will inevitably land on their shores,” he said, saying that South Africa and Botswana – where the new alternative was discovered in South Africa – should be commended and not “punished” for the work. This was a reference to travel restrictions announced by many countries on air travel to and from the region.
Tedros said WHO scientists and others around the world are working urgently to decipher the location of the threat with the new variant, saying: “We don’t yet know if omicron is associated with more transmission, more severe disease, or more infection risk.” , or more. Vaccine evasion risk.”
The world must now be “fully awake” to the threat of coronavirus, “but the very emergence of the omicron is another reminder that although many of us might think we are done with COVID-19. It is not over with us.”
A draft resolution due to be adopted by the World Health Assembly falls short of calling for action toward the creation of a “pandemic treaty” or “legally binding instrument” sought by some, which could bolster the international response when – not if – the pandemic strikes.
EU member states and others have sought language calling for a treaty to be worked out, but the United States and a few other countries have responded that the substance of any agreement must be worked on first before any such document is given. “Treaty” may refer to a legally binding agreement that may require ratification—and likely require domestic political bargaining in some countries.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose 16-year term is likely to expire next week, has called for “credible funding” for the World Health Organization and increased contributions to the UN agency from its member states – citing the European Union’s position in favor of a binding agreement.
In a video message, she said: “The catastrophic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on health and the economy should be a lesson to us. Viruses know no national borders. It is precisely for this reason that we must put in place the measures that need to be taken to improve prevention, early detection and response in an internationally binding manner.”
The British ambassador to Geneva, Simon Manley, tweeted a copy of the unanimously agreed draft text – as required under WHO rules on such issues – and praised Chile and Australia for their work as co-chairs.
“The #Omicron variant shows once again why we need a common understanding of how to prepare for and respond to pandemics, so we all play by the same rules,” he wrote.
The draft does not refer to the word “treaty,” but calls, among other things, for the creation of an “intergovernmental negotiating body” among WHO member states to find a potential deal to improve epidemic prevention, preparedness and response.
The three-day meeting that opened on Monday amounts to a long-term approach: Any UN-backed agreement is likely to take months, if not years, to conclude and enter into force.
But this comes as many countries struggle to tackle the emergence of Omicron which has led to worldwide travel bans and sent jolts to stock markets on Friday.
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