Updated: Jun 8
May 15, 2020
The Geneva Observer
This article is a version of our newsletter briefing sent out on Thursday May 14, 2020. Sign up to our newsletter to get our content a day early and straight in your inbox.
In the run-up to a virtual World Health Assembly meeting that might turn contentious, multilateralism is being reshaped at breakneck speed before our very eyes here in Geneva.
So we thought we’d focus this round-up on WHO, the already embattled international organisation in the heart of Geneva that is at the centre of the international community's response to the global pandemic. If that wasn't enough, it has also become the venue for increasingly acrimonious battles between China and the US.
It may be couched in arid resolutions and yawn inducing formulations, but if this global pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that those decisions have an impact on all of us. A simple question suffices to illustrate our point: If and when a vaccine against Covid-19 is found, who will be able to benefit from it, under what conditions, and at what cost?
A draft resolution was agreed today on the international communities’ response to COVID-19
The World Health Assembly (WHA), WHO’s governing forum is set to meet at the beginning of next week (on Monday 18th and Tuesday 19th). The annual jamboree normally lasts longer than a full week; however, given the current health crisis, it was decided that the 194 member states should meet virtually. The Assembly’s normal activities will be suspended until it can meet again later in 2020 and the de minimis session will focus principally on the COVID-19 response.
Today, after weeks of difficult negotiations, a final text resolution on the international community’s response to COVID-19 has been agreed. An initial draft was originally circulated by the EU almost exactly a month ago (15th April); however, language concerning exceptions for intellectual property and equitable access and distribution of treatments or vaccines seem to have been sticking points.
Not surprisingly, pharmaceutical powerhouses Switzerland, the US, and the UK pushed for softer language.
Reportedly, Canada along with several other countries had called for “universal and non-exclusive and open licencing”, which was opposed by others. Not surprisingly, pharmaceutical powerhouses Switzerland, the US, and the UK pushed for softer language. Whether the final compromise is a success for those seeking universal access to treatments or vaccines remains to be seen. A reference in the text to existing mechanisms and public health exceptions to international patent rules seems less than ambitious. Other sticking points include language on attempts to identify the source of the virus, and proposals on the mechanism and modalities for reviewing and assessing the WHO- coordinated international health response to COVID.
“The success or failure of the meeting will hinge on the US position”
WHO is hoping that the WHA will provide a venue to show the international community’s unity in the face of the virus; however, this is contingent on the US’ behaviour. Pointing to the US’ derailing of the G20 health ministers’ coronavirus statement in April, a senior European diplomat closely associated with the preparation of the WHA told The Geneva Observer: “The success or failure of the meeting will hinge on the US position”. They added: “Withdrawing from the Human Rights Council is one thing, but attacking the WHO in the middle of a global pandemic is quite another. We are getting the sense that some in the US administration realize that while it may play well domestically, it might be highly counterproductive for American interests abroad, particularly in the context of Washington’s rift with China.” Early signals from the US Embassy suggest that the US may stick to its current position, be fairly accusatory of China and WHO, and play the Taiwan card to the fullest.
Taipei, or not Taipei: that is not the question WHO wants to deal with right now
Much to WHO’s frustration, Taiwan’s presence has become an issue in the run-up to the WHA. Over a dozen countries have officially asked Dr Tedros to invite Taiwan to attend the WHA as an observer—a status it enjoyed between 2009 and 2016. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explicitly called for its inclusion, and other countries like Canada, New Zealand and European states have indicated they would look on Taiwan’s inclusion favourably.
Conspiracy theorists are out en masse pointing to Taiwan’s non-invitation as definitive proof that Dr Tedros is in China’s pocket. The reality, however, may be less juicy: a consensus among Member States is required for an invitation and so far China has put its foot down. Taiwan was invited to attend the WHA at a time when Beijing looked favourably on its administration. When a new administration, less warm to China, came to power in 2016 (recently re-elected in 2020), the invitations coincidentally ceased.
Steve Solomon, WHO’s rather well-preserved principal legal officer, has been fielding questions about Taiwan during WHO’s regular press conferences. Any mention of the word ‘Taiwan’ and Dr Tedros looks immediately off-camera (stage left) at Solomon, pre-prepared and legally vetted statement at the ready: Their invitation is matter for Member States, not the WHO secretariat; and while previously a “diplomatically agreeable solution” had been found behind the scenes (read: China said yes), this time around, there are “divergent issues among Member States” (read: China said no).