Explainer-What is on (and off) the agenda of the WHO Assembly?

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FILE PHOTO: The WHO logo is pictured in Geneva

By Emma Farge and Jennifer Rigby

GENEVA (Reuters) – Hundreds of health ministers and diplomats from around the world meet in Geneva this week for the World Health Organization’s first in-person assembly in three years as the U.N. agency seeks to define its future role in global health policy.

The agenda of the World Health Assembly (WHA) is the most packed in the WHO’s 75-year history and is seen as an historic opportunity to move on from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to 15 million deaths, and prepare for the next global outbreak. [L5N2X96B0]

However, many of the most pressing topics, such as reforms of the rules around disease outbreaks, will be postponed for later or discussed only in the corridors.

Here’s a summary of what will and won’t be discussed:

ON THE AGENDA….

WHO FUNDING BOOST

Donors agreed a ‘pivotal’ deal last month to gradually raise their mandatory contributions to the WHO budget to reach 50% of the budget by 2028-2029 or 2030-31. In return, the WHO agreed to study their reform proposals.

Currently, their set fees represent just a fraction (16%) of the WHO’s total budget, which means it cannot fund some programmes since the money is earmarked for donors’ pet projects. The assembly approved the deal on Tuesday.


RE-ELECTION OF TEDROS

WHO’s Ethiopian Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was re-elected via a secret ballot on Tuesday, having overcome criticism from his own government and a crisis last year following sexual abuse reports against WHO staff in Congo.

During the assembly, Tedros is also set to renew the global health agency’s main “triple billion” goals that aim to boost universal health coverage, improve health and well-being and protect people better in health emergencies.

UKRAINE

The WHO’s Europe region passed a resolution against Russia this month and asked Tedros to prepare a report on Ukraine’s health emergency.

Members have prepared a resolution to be voted on at the assembly on Thursday, although diplomats say it will stop short of suspending Russia’s voting rights, as some initially sought. Moscow has prepared a rival resolution.

IHR REFORMS

Reforms to the legally-binding rules that govern countries’ obligations on public health emergencies, the International Health Regulations (IHR), will be raised.

However, the focus will be on a U.S.-led effort to expedite the application of future reforms from 24 months to 12 months, WHO principal legal officer Steve Solomon said. Africa has voiced opposition to the plan.


OFF THE AGENDA….

COVID ORIGINS

The WHO tasked a scientific advisory panel with probing the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus after a preliminary investigation into early COVID-19 cases in China last year left some questions unanswered. A WHO spokesperson said the panel’s report was expected soon but would not be released as part of the assembly.

REFORM OF RULES

Most of the IHR reform negotiations will take place in the two years following the meeting, diplomats say.

These include sensitive items proposed by Washington like the deployment of expert teams to outbreak sites and a new compliance committee to monitor implementation of the rules, a WHO document showed.

Russia has also submitted reforms, diplomats say.

PANDEMIC TREATY

The IHR are widely seen as insufficient for dealing with a global pandemic and Tedros is seeking a new pandemic treaty. Proposals for the new pact might include rules on vaccine-sharing and a proposed ban on wildlife markets.


Negotiations are set to continue in June and a final treaty, whose legal status is yet to be determined, would not be ready until 2024.

PANDEMIC FUND

The G20 has agreed to set up a multi-billion dollar global fund for pandemic preparedness that will be set up outside of the WHO, probably at the World Bank. WHO’s role in the fund is still being decided and it is not on the agenda for the assembly.

(Reporting by Emma Farge in Geneva and Jennifer Rigby in London; additional reporting by Alistair Smout in London; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)

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