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Nations update health emergency laws, extend pandemic treaty talks

The World Health Assembly amended its International Health Regulations and prolonged treaty talks up to a year.

Delegates attend the 77th World Health Assembly at the U.N. in Geneva
Delegates attend the 77th World Health Assembly at the U.N. in Geneva (AN/J. Heilprin)

GENEVA (AN) — The U.N. health agency's governing body approved new amendments to its global health laws and authorized another year of pandemic treaty talks in hopes of strengthening international cooperation.

The World Health Assembly agreed to amend the International Health Regulations – which took effect in 2007 and are legally binding on 196 countries – by adding a new category for when a "pandemic emergency" exists and committing to greater access to medical products and financing.

The assembly, which governs the 194-nation World Health Organization, also extended the more than two years of stalemated pandemic accord talks by up to a year “at the latest," WHO officials said late on Saturday.

That would line up a possible global agreement for adoption by the 2025 World Health Assembly, which hopes to ensure there is more collaboration during the next pandemic than there was during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The talks bogged down over divisions among wealthy and poorer countries on equity issues such as the sharing of vaccines, treatments and diagnostic tools. Roland Driece, who co-chairs WHO's Intergovernmental Negotiating Body that oversees the treaty talks, said the IHR amendments also "will provide the momentum we need to finalize the pandemic agreement."

WHO says the new amendments to the IHR include:

  • A new definition of a pandemic emergency that is meant to trigger international collaboration. A pandemic emergency is a communicable disease that poses a high risk of crossing borders, overrunning health systems and substantially disrupting the economy and societies.
  • A commitment to solidarity and equity toward the sharing of medical products and financing, and the establishment of a committee to ensure the IHR are followed and the creation of national panels to provide coordination.

“The experience of epidemics and pandemics, from Ebola and Zika to COVID-19 and MPOX, showed us where we needed better public health surveillance, response and preparedness mechanisms,” said Dr. Ashley Bloomfield, a New Zealand official who oversaw the IHR amendments.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the IHR amendments will help nations deal with future outbreaks and pandemics by strengthening their disease surveillance and information sharing.

"This is built on a commitment to equity, an understanding that health threats do not recognize national borders, and that preparedness is a collective endeavor," he said. “The decision to conclude the pandemic agreement within the next year demonstrates how strongly and urgently countries want it, because the next pandemic is a matter of when, not if."