World Health Assembly defuses investigation demand, focuses on cooperation to contain COVID-19 pandemic

May 19, 2020: Agenda Item 3 at World Health Assembly, taking place virtually over May 18-19, 2020, firmly endorses the role of the World Health Organisation, calls for maximum cooperation to develop treatments and vaccines for the new corona virus, and sets up two investigation processes into the COVID-19 pandemic.

The draft resolution is proposed by the European Union, the African Union, Japan, India, the Russian Federation, Turkey, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and 33 other countries.

Its call for “in the spirit of unity and solidarity, intensification of cooperation and collaboration at all levels to contain, control and mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic”, is tempered by existing treaty limitations. All the calls for action are qualified by these words: “consistent with the provisions of relevant international treaties including the provisions of the TRIPS agreement and the flexibilities as confirmed by the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health”.

TRIPS is the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights agreement of the World Trade Organisation, and the Doha reference is to the 2001 decision that allowed nations to manufacture or import drugs at low cost to treat address emergencies like the HIV pandemic. South Africa and Brazil had revolted against the use of TRIPS to impose high cost patented HIV treatments.

The WTO is yet to respond to community calls for an urgent review of TRIPS to make sure it is not an obstacle to measures needed in the current COVID-19 pandemic.

The draft resolution rebuffs recent statements by US President Donald Trump and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison by acknowledging “the key leadership role of WHO and the fundamental role of the United Nations system in catalysing and coordinating the comprehensive global response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the central efforts of Member States therein” … It urges government to “provide sustainable funding to WHO to ensure that it can fully respond to public health needs in the global response to COVID-19, leaving no one behind.”

It asks the WHO to create a specific investigation process involving countries and working with the World Organisation for Animal Health, and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations “to identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts, including through efforts such as scientific and collaborative field missions, which will enable targeted interventions and a research agenda to reduce the risk of similar events as well as to provide guidance on how to prevent SARS-COV2 infection in animals and humans and prevent the establishment of new zoonotic reservoirs, as well as to reduce further risks of emergence and transmission of zoonotic diseases”.

The second line of investigation is for the WHO to “Initiate, at the earliest appropriate moment, and in consultation with Member States,1 a stepwise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation, including using existing mechanisms,2 as appropriate, to review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19,including (i) the effectiveness of the mechanisms at WHO’s disposal; (ii) the functioning of the IHR and the status of implementation of the relevant recommendations of the previous IHR Review Committees; (iii) WHO’s contribution to United Nations-wide efforts; and (iv) the actions of WHO and their timelines pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic, and make recommendations to improve global pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response capacity, including through strengthening, as appropriate, WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme”.

1 And regional economic integration organizations as appropriate.

2 Including an IHR Review Committee and the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee for the WHO Health Emergencies Programme.