GENEVA: The World Health Organisation on Monday kicked off its first-ever virtual assembly, with countries calling for a joint response to the COVID-19 pandemic and for any vaccine to be a “global public good”.
Countries are also calling for a reform of the UN health body to ensure it is better prepared to address future pandemics.
The World Health Assembly (WHA) has been trimmed from the usual three weeks to just two days.
It will focus almost solely on COVID-19, which in a matter of months has killed over 315,000 globally, and infected more than 4.7 million.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opened the event, saying several nations had ignored the WHO’s recommendations.
“Different countries have followed different, sometimes contradictory, strategies and we are all paying a heavy price,” he warned in a video address.
“COVID-19 must be a wake-up call. It is time for an end to the hubris,” he said. “Either we get through this pandemic together, or we fail.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping voiced support for a joint approach, vowing in his address to make any vaccine his country developed open for all.
“After the research and development of China’s coronavirus vaccine is completed and it is put into use, it will be made a global public good,” said Xi, whose country currently has five potential vaccines in clinical trials.
‘Defining health crisis’
French President Emmanuel Macron said any vaccine must “be a global public good,” while German Chancellor Angel Merkel insisted it “should of course be available and affordable to all.”
Member states hope the WHA can fashion a joint response, including commitments on equitable access to potential treatments and vaccines.
“We have come together as the nations of the world to confront the defining health crisis of our time,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the assembly.
But the chance of reaching agreement on global measures to address the crisis could be threatened by steadily deteriorating relations between the world’s two largest economies over the pandemic.
US President Donald Trump last week threatened to cut ties with China, where the outbreak first emerged late last year, over its role in the spread of COVID-19, and has repeatedly made unproven allegations that the virus originated in a Chinese lab.
He has also suspended funding to the WHO over accusations it initially downplayed the seriousness of the outbreak, and was kowtowing to Beijing.
Despite swelling tensions, countries hope to adopt a resolution by consensus.
Tabled by the European Union, the resolution calls for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the international response to the coronavirus crisis.
Tedros welcomed the call, saying he would “initiate an independent evaluation at the earliest appropriate moment.”
But he stressed there was no need to dramatically overhaul the WHO, saying the need of the hour was to “strengthen, implement and finance the systems and organisations it has — including WHO.”
An EU source hailed the draft as “ambitious”, and pointed out that if it passes by consensus as expected, it would mark the first time a global forum has achieved unanimous support for a text on the COVID-19 response.
The source said countries had not shied away from thorny topics, including a call for more WHO reform after determining that its capacities “have proven insufficient to prevent a crisis of this magnitude”.
The resolution also calls for the WHO to work closely with other international agencies and countries to identify the animal source of the virus and figure out how it first jumped to humans.
While diplomats have agreed in principle on the draft resolution, observers voiced concern that in the current politicised atmosphere, some countries might still choose to break the consensus next week.
Taiwan decision delayed
The United States and Europe are at loggerheads over future vaccine access, while Washington has also accused China of trying to steal US immunisation research.
Washington is also leading a number of countries in demanding that the WHO end its exclusion of Taiwan — considered by Beijing to be part of its territory — and allow it to access its assemblies as an observer.
WHO however says such a move would require a resolution by member states, who in 1972 decided Beijing was China’s sole legitimate representative.
Despite calls from a number of countries to resolve Taiwan’s status, fears had been voiced that putting the thorny issue to a vote during the shortened meeting could derail it.
On Monday, the WHA decided to put off discussion on Taiwan until later this year.