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WHA Adopts Resolution Calling for Universal Access to COVID-19 Drugs

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, attends the virtual 73rd World Health Assembly during the coronavirus disease outbreak in Geneva, May 19, 2020.

The United States has voted for a World Health Assembly resolution that provides for universal, affordable access to COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics, but with reservations.

This European-led resolution calls for flexibilities in Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. TRIPS, as it is called, is enshrined in a number of World Trade Organization agreements. These flexibilities allow countries to legally import or produce low-priced generic vaccines and drugs to prevent or treat COVID-19.

The United States pushed back on this during the drafting stage. It argued that stripping pharmaceutical companies of their patent rights would cut into their profits and discourage the development of new products.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the WHO, and other officials attend the virtual 73rd World Health Assembly in Geneva, May 19, 2020.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the WHO, and other officials attend the virtual 73rd World Health Assembly in Geneva, May 19, 2020.

In a statement following the vote at the Assembly, the U.S. said the resolution presented an unbalanced and incomplete approach to the issue of access to medicines and TRIPS. And this, it said, might prevent critical acceleration in the research, development and distribution of COVID-19-related products.

The resolution also calls for an independent and comprehensive evaluation of the international response to the World Health Organization’s performance in tackling the pandemic. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he will initiate such an evaluation at the earliest appropriate moment.

“We welcome any initiative to strengthen global health security, and to strengthen WHO and to be better safe,” Tedros said. “As always, WHO remains fully committed to transparency, accountability and continuous improvement.”

Tedros has come under intense criticism from U.S. President Donald Trump, who has accused him of being hand-in-glove with China and of doing Beijing’s bidding. In advance of Tuesday’s closing session, Trump sent Tedros a letter threatening to permanently cut off funding to WHO in 30 days if substantive reforms were not enacted.

Tedros acknowledges the importance of reviewing experiences gained and lessons learned from the global pandemic preparedness and response operation.

But right now, he says WHO’s focus must be on fighting the pandemic with every tool at its disposal and on saving lives.

International charity Oxfam agrees. In a slap at the Trump administration, the agency said calling for fundamental reforms now, when the World Health Organization needs to be fully focused on coordinating the global fight against the pandemic, is a recipe for disaster.