(Top to bottom, left to right) WHO director-deneral Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus; Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga; UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres; Chinese President Xi Jinping; German Chancellor Angela Merkel,; French President Emmanuel Macron; South Korean President Moon Jae-in; Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley; and President Cyril Ramaphosa deliver their speeches via video link at the opening of the World Health Assembly virtual meeting from the WHO headquarters in Geneva, May 18 2020. Picture: WHO/AFP
(Top to bottom, left to right) WHO director-deneral Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus; Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga; UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres; Chinese President Xi Jinping; German Chancellor Angela Merkel,; French President Emmanuel Macron; South Korean President Moon Jae-in; Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley; and President Cyril Ramaphosa deliver their speeches via video link at the opening of the World Health Assembly virtual meeting from the WHO headquarters in Geneva, May 18 2020. Picture: WHO/AFP

Geneva — The World Health Organisation (WHO) concluded its virtual annual meeting on Tuesday at which member states resolved to launch an independent investigation into the WHO’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

Here are five takeaways from the WHO’s two-day World Health Assembly:

1. Pandemic response review 

The resolution, tabled by the EU and accepted by consensus, calls for, “at the earliest appropriate moment”, an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the WHO’s co-ordinated international health response to the coronavirus pandemic.

It will also examine “the actions of WHO and its timelines”.

While the resolution gives the WHO the freedom to decide how to proceed and does not single out China, the UN agency is facing increased pressure from Washington. The US and Australia have been demanding an investigation into how the pandemic was handled by the WHO and China for weeks.

Beijing rejected the idea of a China-centred investigation, calling instead for an assessment of the global health response.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, branded by Washington as being too close to China, also stressed the need to deal with the pandemic first. He said the investigation would be launched at the right moment — without being more specific.

On Monday, an independent WHO advisory committee released its first report on the pandemic, suggesting that countries contact the organisation more quickly, provide greater resources and improve their alert systems.

2. Reforming the WHO 

Many countries and outside experts have stressed the need to reform the WHO, born in the ashes of World War 2, so that it can better respond to the health challenges of the 21st century.

Celebrated US epidemiologist Larry Brilliant said that the WHO’s structure is complicated by the fact that countries vote on every subject, meaning the UN agency itself has no independent authority.

Tuesday’s resolution underlines that the review of the WHO’s performance must ultimately improve the global capacity for pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. It also calls on the international community to provide the WHO with sustainable funding in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

3. Virus animal origins probe 

While the resolution makes no mention of the virus outbreak first being recorded in China in December, it calls on the WHO to work with member states’ other UN agencies “to identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population”. That work, also looking at the possible role of intermediate hosts, should include “scientific and collaborative field missions”.

China has said it is open to an independent inquiry — but only once the pandemic is over.

4. Universal access to vaccines 

The resolution “recognises the role of extensive immunisation against Covid-19 as a global public good”.

It calls for the “universal, timely and equitable access to and fair distribution of all quality, safe, efficacious and affordable essential health technologies and products”.

While it signed up the to resolution, the US later disassociated itself from this part, saying the likes of “patent-pooling” would “send the wrong message to innovators who will be essential to the solutions the whole world needs”.

For Anna Marriott, health policy spokesperson for the Oxfam aid agency, the resolution “leaves too many barriers standing in the way of a vaccine for all”, because pharmaceutical corporations are not required to pool their patents.

5. Taiwan spat 

Early on day one, member states unanimously decided to kick the can down the road on whether to grant Taiwan observer status. They put the decision off until later this year, when the World Health Assembly resumes for a longer session.

The row over Taiwan had threatened to overshadow this week’s brief gathering. Beijing is vehemently opposed to the participation of Taiwan, which it considers part of its territory.

It warned that calls by the US and more than a dozen other countries for Taiwan to be allowed to participate as an observer risked “seriously violating relevant UN and WHO resolutions and undermining global anti-epidemic efforts”.

Washington said Taiwan’s continued exclusion “further damages the WHO’s credibility and effectiveness”.

AFP