Enclosed is a report from one of our partner associations, NAM, USA on the World Health Assembly:
WHO Two-Day Virtual Assembly Focuses Heavily on COVID-19, Access to Health Technologies Amidst U.S.-China Tension, Trump Funding Announcement
The World Health Organization on May 18-19 held the World Health Assembly as a two-day, abbreviated and entirely virtual session heavily focused on COVID-19 issues. (The World Health Assembly normally serves as the WHO’s main decision-making body, a week-long, all-member-state grouping that sets direction for the WHO and serves as an important forum to guide direction for global health policy.) The session was largely a parade of prepared statements from WHO leadership, member states and other stakeholders, with an opening session that featured speeches from dignitaries (U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres and heads of state from Switzerland, South Africa, China, France, Korea, Germany and Barbados) before transitioning to individual oral statements from member states and other relevant stakeholders.
- Dr. Tedros’ remarks (full text) stressed that the pandemic and brought out “the best – and worst – of humanity,” including “geopolitical divisions” (a clear reference to U.S.-China tensions). Amidst criticism from the United States and others, he highlighted WHO’s actions throughout the crisis and asserted that the crisis underscored the importance of recommitting to international goals such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the WHO’s “triple billion” health goals (including expanded universal health coverage).
- Member states broadly approved an intensely negotiated COVID-19 resolution authored by the European Union (text here). While the resolution was broadly focused on the value of collective action, support for the WHO and strengthening of health systems, the resolution also called on the WHO to conduct an independent evaluation of its performance during the crisis “at the earliest appropriate moment,” and included repeated language calling for “equitable and timely access to quality, safe, affordable and efficacious diagnostics, therapeutics, medicines and vaccines” for COVID-19, with repeated mention of TRIPS flexibilities and the WHO’s new Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) accelerator.
- In a related side event between Dr. Tedros and two Latin American presidents (Carlos Alvarado Quesada of Costa Rica and Sebastián Piñera of Chile), the WHO previewed the planned May 29 launch of a technology platform to promote technology pooling and licensing. A group of world leaders (mostly former) on May 14 also sent a letter calling to develop a “people’s vaccine” against COVID-19.
- In a written statement, the United States disassociated from key provisions in the resolution on intellectual property (citing references to TRIPS flexibilities and the WHO’s new Access to COVID-19 Tools accelerator) as well as on sexual and reproductive health.
- Other areas of business were held beyond these meetings, with an expectation that these would be picked up at additional meetings later in the year. In addition, member states approved formal rules for a written silence procedure to allow members to formally adopt resolutions, decisions and other documents – likely to be used for key resolutions and decisions from the February 2020 EB meetings, including those on food safety, digital health, innovation/intellectual property, and harmful use of alcohol.
- Beyond the assembly itself, however, WHO work on various areas less tied to COVID-19 seems to be largely continuing, including work to advance tax/regulatory recommendations to tackle non-communicable diseases and to advance plans on reducing harmful use of alcohol.
- Many member state remarks can be found in the written record or through recorded webcasts.
- United States: Secretary of Health & Human Services Alex Azar delivered the U.S. statement, which was largely critical of the WHO for its handling of COVID-19. Azar called for immediate WHO reform to improve transparency and accountability and an independent review of WHO’s COVID-19 response and called for Taiwanese participation at the WHA.
- Other member state statements from countries for some of the associations on this email include:
- Session 1: Australia (4:00:33), Belgium (3:09:51), Brazil (4:48:01), Canada (4:34:11), Denmark (2:57:28), European Union (delivered by Croatia) (2:33:49), Germany (5:30:15), Mexico (4:28:10) and the UK (2:59:52)
- Session 2: Ireland (1:19:23) and New Zealand (1:31:03)
- Session 3: Japan (2:27:34)
Broader discussions about WHO reform and U.S. messaging received a jolt just as the WHA was kicking off, as U.S. President Donald Trump on May 18 announced/released (on Twitter) direct letter to Dr. Tedros announcing initial results of the White House-led review of WHO and alleging a series of WHO and Chinese missteps. The letter says that the administration “has already started discussions” with Dr. Tedros on WHO reform, but that if the WHO does not commit to “major substantive improvements within the next 30 days,” that the U.S. would make its temporary funding freeze permanent and reconsider its membership in the organization. Dr. Tedros and the WHO did not explicitly respond to those statements during the WHA itself.
World Health Assembly: Virtual Session with COVID-19-Heavy Agenda Slated for May 18-19
Given the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization announced in late April adjusted plans for this year’s World Health Assembly – the WHO’s all-member-state decision-making body – to move largely to a virtual event with an abbreviated agenda:
- Timing: The WHA, originally scheduled for a week will be shortened to a one-to-two-day virtual event, starting (and with the bulk of activity) at noon (Geneva time) on Monday, May 18. (That will be followed by meetings of the Executive Board held on May 22 – also virtually.) At the end of the May 19 WHA session, member states will likely suspend the WHA for a session later in the year to pick up the remainder of their normal agenda. (WHA page here; agenda/documents here.)
- Format: The program will include remarks/statements from the WHO’s Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and a few other high-level speakers, as well as delivered statements from member countries. Non-state actors (including NGOs and business groups) that are in official relations with the WHA can post written statements, but will not be allowed to speak. The session should be webcast on the WHA site.
- Agenda: The agenda will be narrowed to focus purely on two areas – global/member state responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and WHO administrative business – with all other business (reports, resolutions, etc.) held.
- The European Union has proposed a broad COVID-19 related resolution that is currently undergoing member negotiations – but has a range of language that has yet to reach consensus, particularly on a possible independent investigation of COVID-19 origins and innovation/IP issues. (For a leaked text as of May 4, see here; for perspectives on the language negotiations, see here, here, and here.)
- Based on our understanding, other resolutions and decisions from the February 2020 Executive Board meeting (such as those on food safety or on innovation/access to medicines) that would normally be approved during the WHA will be held until after the WHA, with member states working on the details of a “silence procedure” mechanism that will be announced at the WHA. (EB146 documents here.)
- In the Run Up…: The WHA also comes on the heels of WHO action related to intellectual property issues that have sought to shift the conversation in a direction that has potential concern for intellectual property issues. These include the WHO’s creation of the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (known as the ACT accelerator, which followed a Costa Rican proposal for the WHO to create a voluntary IP pool) and a formal European Union-hosted launch event and pledging conference for the accelerator that brought together a range of world leaders – but notably not the United States or China.
- Broader Context: We also understand from international sources that though the WHA itself is heavily COVID-19 focused, the WHO more broadly is less focused on the pandemic: various initiatives that have raised questions from some indsutry stakeholders in the past – including those on harmful use of alcohol, on tax and marketing restrictions for food and beverage products, and innovation/access to medicines – appear to be largely continuing without interruption. We’d be interested for what you may be hearing on areas of priority for your association/members.
WTO, G-20, OECD, Member States Call for Trade Flows, Against Export Restrictions During COVID-19
Amidst the current COVID-19 pandemic, key global payers including the WHO, FAO, G20 and OECD have stepped up efforts to address export restrictions and other disruptive actions that can negatively impact both global and country-specific responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. These efforts feed into country-specific discussions about supply chains and policy actions.
- G20: G20 leaders, including President Donald Trump, vowed joint efforts to “minimize disruptions to trade and global supply chains” during a late March virtual summit. At a follow-up summit, G20 Trade Ministers pledged to “take immediate necessary measures to facilitate trade” in goods needed for pandemic response, though their statement did not include any pledge to avoid or limit export bans or restrictions. (See U.S. statement.)
- WTO/WHO: The heads of the World Trade Organization and World Health Organization on April 20 issued a joint statement affirming efforts to support the normal cross-border flow of vital health products and pledging to resolve unnecessary disruptive to global supply chains. This follows a similar March 31 joint statement (that also included the head of the Food and Agriculture Organization) to maintain the flow of trade in food and agriculture products.
- OECD: The OECD has issued guidance on a range of global responses to COVID-19, including topic sheets on the importance of trade and trade facilitation measures and other topics.
Additionally, individual member states have pledged to maintain open trade for medical products, with a New Zealand and Singapore-led joint statement pledging to avoid export restrictions and promote trade flows during the COVID-19 pandemic and follow-up engagement to discuss more concrete tariff commitments.