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WHO chief urges treaty and 'lot of work'

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus closed out the World Health Assembly with a warning against complacency and an appeal for a global pandemic treaty.

People gather at Rome's Piazza di Spagna in March
People gather at Rome's Piazza di Spagna in March (AN/Gabriella Clare Marino)

GENEVA (AN) — The World Health Organization's director-general closed out its weeklong high-level assembly on Monday with a warning against complacency and an appeal to support a global pandemic treaty that could help prevent another such deadly outbreak.

"The reality is, we still have a lot of work to do to end this pandemic," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a public health expert and former head of Ethiopia’s foreign affairs and health ministries, told the 194-nation World Health Assembly, which met by teleconference. "We’re very encouraged that cases and deaths are continuing to decline globally, but it would be a monumental error for any country to think the danger has passed."

Twenty five nations joined with the European Council and WHO in March in making an “urgent call” for creation of an international pandemic treaty aimed at protecting the world from future health crises. Since then, support for the idea has grown to more than 60 countries as co-sponsors. The assembly's health ministers agreed to study the idea further and to meet again in late November for a special session, where they could decide to launch negotiations over a treaty.

"The one recommendation that I believe will do most to strengthen both WHO and global health security is the recommendation for a treaty on pandemic preparedness and response," Tedros said. "This is an idea whose time has come."

New estimates by the U.N. health agency show 3 million people died of COVID-19 in 2020, or 1.2 million more than officially reported. "With the latest COVID-19 deaths reported to WHO now exceeding 3.3 million, based on the excess mortality estimates produced for 2020, we are likely facing a significant undercount of total deaths directly and indirectly attributed to COVID-19," WHO said.

Tedros urged all nations to vaccinate at least 10% of their populations by the end of September and at least 30% by the end of the year. But he said the world "will still face the same vulnerabilities that allowed a small outbreak to become a global pandemic" once the COVID-19 global health crisis — officially labeled a pandemic by WHO in March 2020 — has ended.

"The questions the pandemic is asking us cannot simply be answered with new institutions, mechanisms, facilities or processes," he said. "That’s why the one recommendation that I believe will do most to strengthen both WHO and global health security is the recommendation for a treaty on pandemic preparedness and response."

Peer review

The assembly approved more than 30 resolutions and decisions over the past week, while WHO adopted simpler labels for key COVID-19 variants using Greek letters.

Among the resolutions and decisions, WHO noted at the assembly's close, were efforts on diabetes, disabilities, violence against children, eye care, HIV, hepatitis and sexually transmitted diseases, local production of medicines, malaria, neglected tropical diseases, noncommunicable diseases, nursing and midwifery and oral health.

Tedros told the assembly the treaty would improve sharing, trust and accountability among nations, allowing them to conduct a "peer review" of each other and to improve research and early warning capabilities. It also would promote the stockpiling and production of pandemic supplies, he said, and help fix the inequitable access to vaccines, tests and treatments that the world suffers from now.

The treaty would draw on WHO’s constitution and other international organizations and global health instruments, such as WHO’s 2007 International Health Regulations that provide legally binding rights and obligations towards disease outbreaks and other acute public health risks among 196 nations. European Council President Charles Michel proposed the idea at the Group of 20 major economies’ summit last November.

Confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide have surpassed 170 million with 45% of all cases in the United States, India and Brazil alone, according to Johns Hopkins University and Google data trackers. Those were accompanied by more than 3.5 million deaths and 1.9 billion vaccine doses administered mostly in China, the United States, India, Brazil, the United Kingdom and Germany.