The World Health Organization’s (WHO) 76th World Health Assembly (WHA) wrapped up last week without members coming to a final agreement on the pandemic treaty or amendments to the international health regulations (IHR).
However, there were significant developments, including:
The new developments were in addition to those The Defender reported on last week, including the release of a new bureau’s text of the draft pandemic treaty and new proposals to limit free speech and personal liberties.
More pandemics coming — but they aren’t the only threat, WHO says
Addressing the WHA on May 22, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said his recent declaration to end the COVID-19 as a global health emergency is “not the end of COVID-19 as a global health threat.”
Tedros told WHA member states:
“The threat of another variant emerging that causes new surges of disease and death remains. And the threat of another pathogen emerging with even deadlier potential remains … When the next pandemic comes knocking — and it will — we must be ready to answer decisively, collectively and equitably.”
Future pandemics aren’t the only threat humanity faces or that the WHO must be ready to respond to, Tedros said.
“Pandemics are far from the only threat we face,” he said. “In a world of overlapping and converging crises, an effective architecture for health emergency preparedness and response must address emergencies of all kinds.”
This statement comes as the U.N. General Assembly is discussing its Pandemic Preparedness, Prevention and Response initiative, which will empower the U.N. secretary-general to quickly respond to “global shocks” related to pandemics, the climate, biological warfare, cyberspace or supply chain disruptions, an “event in outer space” or an “unforeseen black swan event.”
Tedros used this threat to urge the WHO member states to successfully complete negotiations regarding the pandemic treaty and IHR amendments, “so the world will never again have to face the devastation of a pandemic like COVID-19.”
“We cannot kick this can down the road,” he said. “If we do not make the changes that must be made, then who will? And if we do not make them now, then when?”
Tedros does not appear to use the phrase by name when addressing the WHA, but several press reports referenced “Disease X” — the WHO’s placeholder name for a disease that is currently unknown or not in existence, with the potential to be devastating for humanity.
“Disease X,” included on the WHO’s list of “priority diseases” likely to cause the next pandemic, is not a new concept — it was first named in 2018, by Dr. Richard Hatchett of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness. According to the New York Post, Hatchett said, “This isn’t the stuff of science fiction. This is a scenario we have to prepare for. This is Disease X.”
$6.83 billion budget includes ‘historical 20% increase’
The WHA approved a 20% budget increase for the WHO, alongside the launch of a new “replenishment” initiative to raise more funds for the agency.
According to Dr. David Bell, a public health physician and biotech consultant and former director of Global Health Technologies at Intellectual Ventures Global Good Fund, the approval of more funds “illustrates that global health as a discipline has completely lost the plot and been taken over by people interested in making profit.”
On May 22, WHO member states agreed to a $6.83 billion budget for the WHO in 2024-2025, including “a historical 20% increase of assessed contributions (or membership fees).” Member states will contribute $1.15 billion via their membership fees, another $5.69 billion will come from “voluntary contributions” from “member states and other contributors.”
Budget priorities for the 2024-2025 period include expanding universal health coverage, protections from health emergencies and promoting “better health and well-being” for “one billion more people,” in addition to “more effective and efficient WHO support to countries,” polio eradication, “special programs” and “emergency operations.”
According to independent journalist James Roguski, the WHO spent twice as much on salaries ($1.164 billion) as it did on medical supplies and materials ($551 million) in 2022 — representing only 13% of expenditures.
Roguski’s financial analysis of the WHO noted that last year, the agency had net assets of $5.02 billion, revenue of $4.354 billion and a net surplus of $506 million. Voluntary contributions from donors comprised 84% of its revenue, while member states provided $496 million in assessed contributions — less than the net surplus.
While only 13% of spending was for medical supplies and materials, 30% went to salaries (at an average of $120,000 per employee) and almost 35% went to “contractual services.” An additional $161 million was spent on “travel expenses” in 2022.
“The U.S. ‘donated’ an additional $739 million over and above its required assessed payment,” Roguski said.
Despite the increase in assessed contributions from member states, the WHO is also proceeding with a “replenishment mechanism” to raise even more funds, from private actors.
The replenishment mechanism “will be designed to increase the predictability of WHO’s funding by encouraging multiyear commitments,” the WHO said. It will also attract new donors and “enhance political support for the full financing of the base segment of WHO’s Programme budget through a year-long, inclusive engagement process that culminates in a high-visibility financing event.”
The WHA approved the proposal for a replenishment mechanism, and several “investment rounds” are slated to follow beginning in 2024. To make this opportunity enticing for investors, the WHO said there is a “$35 return for every $1 invested in WHO.”
Tedros promotes more vaccines, praises Gates, Gavi
During Tedros’ opening remarks to the WHA on May 21, he repeatedly stressed the importance of expanding vaccination coverage worldwide and promoting new vaccines, while also noting a global slip in COVID-19 and DTP [diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis] vaccination coverage, which he blamed on “anti-vaxxers.”
Tedros also promoted the use of new vaccines targeting tuberculosis, malaria and human papillomavirus (HPV), especially in low- and middle-income countries.
And during his opening remarks, Tedros thanked Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, stating that “for more than 20 years, millions of children around the world have enjoyed the benefits of vaccines thanks to the work of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance,” including the introduction of “new vaccines against cervical cancer, malaria, pneumonia, meningitis, polio, and reached the incredible milestone of immunizing 1 billion children.”
Gavi, which says it “helps vaccinate almost half the world’s children against deadly and debilitating infectious diseases,” was established in 1999, with the Gates Foundation as one of its co-founders and permanent board members. It maintains a core partnership with the WHO, UNICEF and the World Bank.
Tedros also used the occasion to promote COVID-19 vaccines and the WHO’s mRNA Hub, launched in South Africa in 2021. He said the hub is “part of our commitment to strengthen local production and enhance pandemic preparedness and response globally,” adding:
“The Hub has now started transferring technology to manufacturers in 15 countries, supported by the biomanufacturing training hub in the Republic of Korea, which has trained 300 staff in low- and middle-income countries.
“The mRNA Technology Transfer Programme holds huge promise, not just for vaccines against COVID-19, but also for other diseases including HIV, tuberculosis, malaria and more.”
Tedros connected all of these issues to the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), urging countries to “pick up the pace of progress” in meeting health-related SDG targets.
“The pandemic has blown us off course, but it has shown us why the SDGs must remain our north star, and why we must pursue them with the same urgency and determination with which we countered the pandemic,” he said.
New partnership with Rockefeller Foundation address ‘pandemics fueled by climate change’
This year’s WHA also saw the announcement of a new WHO and Rockefeller Foundation partnership “to strengthen the WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence.”
Announced May 23, the $5 million investment “will accelerate priority projects of the WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence to drive global collaboration in genomic surveillance, adoption of data tools for pathogen detection, and assessment of climate-aggravated outbreak threats.”
This will include the cultivation of “global networks for pathogen detection and to strengthen pandemic preparedness capabilities, including broadening surveillance for diseases worsened by rising temperatures and extreme weather,” in addition to “scaling global capacity for genomic surveillance” and “improving outbreak detection.”
Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, WHO assistant director-general and head of the WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence, said:
“The COVID-19 pandemic underscored that disease surveillance, collaboration between stakeholders, and data sharing were absolutely essential ingredients for health security — and the global community was unprepared.”
In turn, Dr. Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, said “Climate change is increasing both the risk of another global pandemic and the need to collaborate and share data,” adding that “We’re proud to partner with the Hub to expand its focus on preventing pandemics fueled by climate change.”
On May 24, Tedros announced another climate change-related initiative. Speaking at a climate and health technical briefing as part of the WHA, he said that this year’s UN Climate Conference of Parties (COP28), taking place in Dubai between Nov. 30 and Dec. 12, will include a full day in its calendar dedicated to health and climate change.
Speaking via video at the same briefing, U.S. Special Presidential Envoy on Climate Change John Kerry said “the climate crisis is killing people” and referred to it as a “battle” in which “We’re losing many more lives every year than we lost in the Holocaust and World War II.”
At the same briefing, Dr. Maria Neira, director of the WHO’s Department of Climate, Environment and Health, said the health sector needs to “decarbonize,” as it is responsible for approximately 5% of global carbon emissions annually.
Michael Nevradakis, Ph.D., based in Athens, Greece, is a senior reporter for The Defender and part of the rotation of hosts for CHD.TV's "Good Morning CHD."
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