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Ending COVID, Preventing Future Pandemics Expected to Top UN Health Meeting Agenda 

A handout photograph taken and released by the WHO on May 24, 2021, shows Director-General Adhanom Ghebreyesus delivering a speech during the World Health Assembly. (AFP photo / World Health Organization / Christopher Black)

Ending the COVID-19 pandemic and preventing future pandemics is expected to dominate discussions during this week’s 74th World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization. The session will also address other pressing global health issues.

The 2021 World Health Assembly will be held virtually, from tomorrow (May 24) through June 1. This in and of itself is aimed at sending a strong message that it still is not safe for large groups of people to gather physically. More than 2,750 people so far have registered to attend the virtual event.

WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic and a global International public health emergency on March 11, 2020. Since then, COVID-19 cases have increased fortyfold to 162 million, including more than 3.3 million deaths.

Discussions on a so-called pandemic treaty to better prepare for and prevent global infectious outbreaks is expected to take center stage at the global assembly. WHO chief legal officer Steven Solomon says drafting a treaty would be a long process. He says delegates have not decided whether negotiations on a treaty should be started.

He says a legally binding pandemic convention would cover both substantive issues, which include equitable sharing of materials such as vaccines and diagnoses, and structural ones.

“Structurally, the elements that often come up are issues of enforcement mechanisms, compliance mechanisms, monitoring mechanisms, incentives and disincentives. There are clearly issues of governance and how that would work under treaty institutions, and financing,” he said.

The assembly will face the largest agenda ever over the coming eight days, with more than 72 global health issues under examination. Questions of vaccine equity will be central to these discussions — wealthy countries are making great strides in vaccinating their populations and returning to a semblance of normal life but poor countries are not. WHO warns vaccine inequity threatens ending the pandemic and global recovery from the pandemic.

As in previous years, the issue of granting Taiwan observer status at the WHA will come up for debate at the opening session. China claims Taiwan as one of its provinces and has blocked Taiwan’s participation since 2016. Under Beijing’s “One China Policy,” the Chinese Communist Party asserts sovereignty over Taiwan.

This year, 13 WHO member states, including the United States, have called for Taiwan to be allowed to take part in proceedings. They say Taiwan has great insight on tackling the pandemic and would have a lot to contribute.

Other significant issues to be addressed include the eradication of polio, speeding action on antimicrobial resistance, and considering WHO’s global strategy on health, environment and climate change.