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WHO extends talks on pandemic deal

Members of the World Health Organization on Saturday extended negotiations for a landmark global agreement on managing future pandemics for up to a year, as the head of the WHO warned that a new crisis was only a matter of time.

Two years of talks on a deal ended on May 24 without a deal due to differences between developing and rich countries.

The last day of the World Health Assembly (WHA) – the annual decision-making meeting of the 194 WHO member states – allowed until next year’s meeting to reach an agreement.

“The historic decisions taken today demonstrate the shared desire of Member States to protect their own people and the world from the shared risk of public health emergencies and future pandemics,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“The decision to conclude the pandemic agreement next year demonstrates how strongly and urgently countries want it, because the next pandemic is a matter of when, not if.”

In December 2021, alarmed by the devastation caused by Covid-19 – which has killed millions and crippled health systems – the WHA commissioned an agreement on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.

Negotiators were supposed to reach a final deal at this year’s meeting.

The assembly “made concrete commitments to complete negotiations on a global agreement on the pandemic within one year at the latest,” a WHO statement said at the end of the meeting in Geneva.

– Renewed rules for emergency situations –

The Assembly also agreed on amendments to the International Health Regulations, a legally binding framework for responding to public health emergencies.

Covid-19 exposed flaws in the system, first adopted in 1969 and last updated in 2005, countries failed to act when the WHO sounded the biggest alarm available for IHR in January 2020.

The amended rules introduce the notion of a “pandemic emergency”, which requires member states to take “swift” coordinated action, the statement said.

Tedros said the IHR changes “will strengthen countries’ ability to detect and respond to future epidemics and pandemics by strengthening their own national capacities and coordination among member states in disease surveillance, information sharing and response.”

The definition of pandemic emergency represents a higher level of alarm than existed in the former regulations.

“Experience with epidemics and pandemics, from Ebola and Zika to Covid-19 and mpox, has shown us where we need better mechanisms for public health surveillance, response and preparedness.” said Ashley Bloomfield, who co-chaired the discussions on the INR change.

“Countries knew what had to be done and we did it.”

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