Don’t delay reforms to prepare for next pandemic —WHO chief

May 23, 2023 - 3:38 PM
Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends the World Health Assembly at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, May 21, 2023. (Reuters/Denis Balibouse)

 The head of the World Health Organization urged countries on Monday to carry out reforms needed to prepare for the next pandemic, hailing their “historic” decision to accept a major budget hike at the U.N. agency’s annual assembly.

Speaking at the assembly weeks after ending the global emergency status for the COVID-19 pandemic, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was time to advance negotiations on preventing the next pandemic.

“We cannot kick this can down the road,” the WHO director-general said in a major address to the agency’s member states, warning that the next pandemic was bound to “come knocking”.

“If we do not make the changes that must be made, then who will? And if we do not make them now, then when?” he said.

The 10-day annual World Health Assembly in Geneva, which coincides with the WHO’s 75th anniversary, is set to address global health challenges including future pandemics, eradicating polio and supporting steps to ease Ukraine’s health emergency triggered by Russia’s invasion.

The WHO’s 194 member states are now drafting a pandemic treaty which is up for adoption at next year’s assembly.

“A commitment from this generation (to a pandemic accord) is important, because it is this generation that experienced how awful a small virus could be,” said Tedros.

At the same meeting, countries approved a $6.83 billion budget for 2024-25 – a decision that tested national commitments to fixing a WHO funding model which was seen as too small and overly reliant on the vagaries of donors.

The budget includes a 20% increase in member states’ mandatory fees under a preliminary agreement reached last year in exchange for a commitment to reforms including on budget, governance and finance policies.

U.S. Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs Michele J. Sison said future increases would be “contingent upon continued reform progress”. Central and South American countries also called for the WHO to address what they described as chronic underfunding of their region.

—Reporting by Emma Farge; editing by Friederike Heine, William Maclean and Mark Heinrich