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GHTC is sharing our top takeaways after traveling to Geneva, Switzerland last week for the 77th World Health Assembly.

June 7, 2024 by Philip Kenol

Last week, rain clouds gathered over Geneva as delegates from all over the world completed their annual pilgrimage to the World Health Assembly (WHA), the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) annual forum for the 194 member states. The somber background reflected the mood heading into the meeting, as many were expecting this year’s gathering to be a washout. A visibly weary WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed his disappointment on the opening day that negotiations on a pandemic accord had not been completed in time for a WHA vote. Representatives also expected contentious fights over sexual and reproductive health and geopolitical conflicts, such as the ones in Ukraine and Gaza, to spill over into the proceedings, freezing debate and derailing possible progress on agenda items ranging from climate and health to universal health coverage. Yet, despite some serious bumps in the road, WHA also showcased that any multilateral system obituary is premature and that multilateralism can still deliver the necessary change we need to advance the global health agenda.  

WHA approves new IHR amendments, resets timeline for pandemic agreement negotiations

All eyes were on whether member states could come together to finalize the negotiations around the pandemic accord, a proposed convention to address some of the shortcomings exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as amendments to the International Health Regulations (IHR), an existing framework that codifies member state and WHO responsibilities in preparing for and responding to a public health emergency.  

Heading into WHA, many stakeholders waited with bated breath to see if member states could bring both these processes across the finish line. Unfortunately, despite two long years of grueling negotiations, countries were unable to forge sufficient consensus to approve the pandemic accord. Instead, countries agreed to extend the mandate of the intergovernmental negotiating body, which coordinates the deliberation process for another year, providing additional time to reach compromises around the most contentious issues (financing, technology transfer—the process by which knowledge is transferred from the originator of a technology to other manufacturers to support the diffusion of health technologies into additional markets—, and a proposed access- and benefit-sharing system, which would pair commitments by countries around the sharing of pathogen samples and sequencing data with commitments from manufacturers to set aside a dedicated portion of their products for equitable distribution during health emergencies).  

Nonetheless, member states notched a desperately needed win in reaching consensus on amendments to the IHR, achieving an agreement in the final hours of WHA. The consensus takes on added significance given that country representatives were not only in a race against time but also against fast-eroding trust in multilateralism, which was deeply fractured by the pandemic and subsequent geopolitical conflicts. The amendments to these technical rules, last revised in 2005 following the SARS outbreak, represent the first significant change in international law in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While there were many changes to the IHR, one that stands out the most is that the added provisions include a commitment to solidarity and equity on strengthening access to medical products and to financing, including specific text that directs countries to promote research and development (R&D) and strengthen local production of quality, safe, and effective relevant health products. The previous IHR did not include any mention of R&D or the need to ensure equitable access to new tools.  

WHA reinvigorates maternal and child health agenda  

Progress was also made on a couple of other fronts in Geneva. Alarmed by the stagnation of progress in reducing maternal and child mortality, member states passed a critical resolution committing to specific actions to prevent the deaths of women, babies, and children.

The resolution, led by Somalia and other cosponsors, commits countries to tackle the leading causes of maternal and child deaths, particularly in the hardest-hit nations. In it, countries agreed to improve access to maternal health services, including sexual and reproductive services, and comprehensive child health services through stronger primary health care and expanded access to emergency services.

It also urges countries to develop and invest in tools that enable access to essential quality medicines for pregnant women, lactating women, mothers, and newborns and calls on WHO to strengthen and expand collaborative efforts, such as those promoted by WHO technical departments and the Global Accelerator for Pediatric formulations, or GAP-f, network, for facilitating better access to medicines for children.

The WHA resolution marks WHO’s first significant action on maternal mortality in nearly a decade, following the adoption of the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health in 2015.

Antimicrobial resistance in the spotlight  

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) also was in the spotlight in Geneva. With the United Nations High-Level Meeting (UN HLM) on AMR taking place in New York in September and a high-level ministerial meeting in Saudi Arabia in November, this year has been supercharged with attention on the issue, with WHA featuring numerous AMR events, roundtables, and initiatives.  

Delegates approved a resolution to accelerate national and global responses on AMR, with many of them highlighting it as a crucial building block for the meetings in the fall. The resolution welcomes WHO’s strategic and operational priorities to address drug-resistant bacterial infections in the human health sector, which include prevention of infections; universal access to affordable, quality diagnosis and appropriate treatment of infections; strategic information, science and innovation; and effective governance and financing of the human health sector response to AMR.  

The resolution also calls on member states to support investments in R&D for new tools to combat AMR and replenish the shockingly waning pipeline, to strengthen the capacities and standards of laboratories, and to participate in the WHO’s Global Antimicrobial Resistance and Use Surveillance System, or GLASS.

While WHA did ultimately feature some contentious moments, especially around the geopolitics of Ukraine and Gaza, and major pushback on sexual and reproductive health, the latter almost derailing the adoption of several key decisions, the wins on IHR, maternal and child health, and AMR will have reverberations beyond WHA. Delegates hope that these wins will provide the necessary momentum to continue to make progress on the pandemic accord and at the UN HLM on AMR in the fall.  

About the author

Philip KenolGHTC

Philip manages the coalition’s multilateral policy analysis and advocacy work. He develops and implements outreach strategies to the various United Nations agencies and other multilateral organizations to ensure that the coalition is advocating a more about this author