The Columbus Dispatch

WHO chief: Variant shows need for global synergy

- Jamey Keaten

GENEVA – The World Health Organizati­on on Monday pushed for an internatio­nal accord to help prevent and fight future pandemics amid the emergence of a worrying new omicron COVID-19 variant.

WHO Director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu­s also said many uncertaint­ies remain about the variant’s transmissi­bility and severity of its infection.

Tedros joined leaders like outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chilean President Sebastian Pinera for a long-planned and largely virtual special session of the U.N. health agency’s member states at the World Health Assembly.

The gathering was aimed at devising a global action plan toward preventing, preparing and responding to future pandemics.

“The emergence of the highly mutated omicron variant underlines just how perilous and precarious our situation is,” Tedros said, calling for a “legally binding” agreement that wasn’t mentioned in a draft text seeking consensus on the way forward. “Indeed, omicron demonstrat­es just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics.”

“Our current system disincenti­vizes countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores,” he said, saying that South Africa and Botswana should be praised and not “penalized” for their work. That was an allusion to travel restrictio­ns announced by many countries on air travel to and from the region.

Tedros said WHO scientists and others around the world are working urgently to decipher the threat post by the new variant, saying: “We don’t yet know whether omicron is associated with more transmissi­on, more severe disease, more risk of infections, or more risk of evading vaccines.”

The world should now be “wide awake” to the threat of the coronaviru­s, “but omicron’s very emergence is another reminder that although many of us might think we are done with COVID-19. It’s not done with us,” he said.

A draft resolution set to be adopted by the World Health Assembly stops short of calling for work toward specifical­ly establishi­ng a “pandemic treaty” or “legally binding instrument” sought by some, which could beef up the internatio­nal response when, not if, a new pandemic erupts.

European Union member countries and others had sought language calling for work toward a treaty, but the United States and a few other countries countered that the substance of any accord should be worked out first before any such document is given a name. A “treaty” would suggest a legally binding agreement that could require ratification, and would likely incur domestic political haggling in some countries.

Merkel, whose 16-year tenure is likely to end next week, called for “reliable financing” for WHO and increased contributi­ons to the U.N. agency from its member states – while alluding to the EU position in favor of a binding agreement.

Britain’s ambassador in Geneva, Simon Manley, tweeted a copy of the draft text that was agreed by consensus – as required under WHO rules on such issues – and praised Chile and Australia for their work as co-chairs.

“The #Omicron variant shows yet again why we need a common understand­ing of how we prepare for and respond to pandemics, so we’re all playing by the same rules,” he wrote.

The draft makes no reference to the word “treaty” but does call for the creation of an “intergover­nmental negotiatin­g body” among WHO member states to work out a possible deal to improve pandemic prevention, preparedne­ss and response.

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