WHO Director
Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus Image Credit: Reuters

Geneva: The World Health Organisation (WHO) will on Monday kick off its first-ever virtual assembly, but fears abound that US-China tensions could derail the strong action needed to address the COVID-19 crisis.

The World Health Assembly, which has been trimmed from the usual three weeks to just two days, Monday and Tuesday, is expected to focus almost solely on COVID-19, which in a matter of months has killed more than 310,000 globally, and infected nearly 4.7 million.

A number of heads of state, government chiefs, health ministers and other dignitaries are expected to attend the meeting, which is due to kick off around noon on Monday.

4.7million


number of coronavirus infections worldwide so far.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Friday the event would be "one of the most important (WHAs) since we were founded in 1948".

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.

Blame game

US President Donald Trump last week threatened to cut ties with China, where the outbreak began 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 allegations it initially downplayed the seriousness of the outbreak, and was kowtowing to Beijing.

Despite the tensions, countries hope to adopt by consensus a resolution urging a joint response to the pandemic.

The resolution, tabled by the European Union, calls for an "impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation" of the international response to the COVID crisis.

Consultations around the text concluded last week after "tough" negotiations, according to Nora Kronig, who heads the international affairs division of Switzerland's public health office.

After several days, a tentative agreement was reached to approve the resolution, which also calls for more equitable access for tests, medical equipment, potential treatments and a possible future vaccine.

'Ambitious' 

An EU source hailed the draft as "ambitious", and pointed out that if it does indeed pass 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 concerns that in the current politicised atmosphere, some countries might still choose to break the consensus next week.

"My hope is that we will be able to join consensus," US Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva Andrew Bremberg said on Friday.

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.

And 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 next week's assembly as an observer.

Some Taiwan participation a 'minimum' 

"While this has been an ongoing concern for several years, this has taken on a heightened attention this year in response to the global pandemic," Bremberg said.

"Allowing for some sort of meaningful participation would seem to be the minimum that the WHO could do."

The UN health agency has, however, insisted that such a move would require a resolution by member states, who in 1972 decided Beijing was China's sole legitimate representative.

It has also suggested it can only issue an invite with Beijing's blessing.

Taiwan was invited to attend the WHA for a number of years as an observer, but that stopped in 2016, with the entrance of a new Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, who refuses to recognise the concept that Taiwan is part of "one China".

Nearly 15 countries, including Belize, Guatemala, the Marshall Islands and Honduras, have written to Tedros asking that the question of Taiwan's participation be added to the agenda.

The United States, which will be represented during the assembly by Health Secretary Alex Azar, is meanwhile not among the countries who are asking the WHA to make a call on the issue of Taiwan's participation.

Several diplomatic sources cautioned that putting this issue to a vote even under normal conditions would be a drawn-out process, and that doing so during a short, virtual meeting would be an unsurmountable logistical challenge.

It would "torpedo" the entire assembly, one diplomatic source warned.


5 things you need to know about WHO

1. Founded on the ashes of WWII

When diplomats met in 1945 to form the United Nations in the aftermath of World War II, they discussed establishing a global health body. The WHO came into being three years later on April 7, 1948.

The WHO is founded on the principle that "the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being".

The organisation defines health as: "A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."

The WHO now has more than 7,000 employees in its 150 country offices, six regional offices and its Geneva headquarters. It has 194 member states.

2. Leadership structure

The WHO's governance is split between the World Health Assembly (WHA), the executive board and the director-general.

The WHA is the WHO's decision-making body, attended once a year by delegations from member states. It decides the policy, appoints the director-general, supervises financial policies and approves the budget.

An executive board of 34 technically qualified members elected for three-year terms, meets twice a year: in January, when it decides the WHA agenda, and in May, following the assembly.

Its main job is to advise the WHA and to implement its decisions.

The director-general is appointed by the WHA on the board's nomination. Its eighth DG, in post since 2017, is 55-year-old former Ethiopian health and foreign minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

3. Funding

The WHO budget runs on two-year cycles.

It gets its money from member states and non-governmental organisations, their membership fees calculated according to wealth and population.

But these "assessed contributions" account for less than a quarter of the WHO's funding. Most of it now comes from voluntary contributions from member states and donors alike.

The WHO's budget for 2018-2019 was $5.62 billion (Dh20.6 billion), of which $4.3 billion was in specified voluntary contributions.

Overall, the top contributors were the United States (15.9 per cent), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (9.4 per cent), Britain (7.7 per cent), Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (6.6 per cent) and Germany (5.2 per cent).

4. Successes

The WHO has played a major role in eradicating and curtailing several serious diseases.

Following a massive vaccination campaign, the WHO declared in May 1980 that smallpox had been completely wiped out.

In 2016, five of the eight tropical diseases against which a research programme was launched in 1975 had been all but eliminated.

Malaria has not been seen on the European continent since the early 2000s.

It has also launched ambitious efforts to eradicate polio. So far, cases of the crippling disease have decreased by 99 per cent since 1988, when it was endemic in 125 countries and 350,000 cases were recorded worldwide.

The WHO launched an ambitious programme with UNAIDS in December 2003 to provide anti-AIDS drugs to millions of patients in developing countries, particularly in Africa.

5. Setbacks 

The WHO's handling of the Ebola outbreak in west Africa between late 2013 and 2016, which killed more than 11,300 people, is seen as perhaps its biggest failure. The organisation was blamed for initially underestimating the scale of the crisis.

It was forced to undergo a massive reform after being slammed for responding too slowly and failing to grasp the gravity of that outbreak until it was out of control.

The WHO declared the outbreak an international health emergency in August 2014, almost five months after the virus appeared in Guinea, which many non-governmental organisations thought was far too late.