At World Health Assembly, international locations agree on efforts to spice up pandemic preparedness

Member countries of the UN World Health Organization (WHO), on the final day of the seventy-seventh World Health Assembly, adopted important amendments to the International Health Regulations (IHR), including defining a “pandemic emergency” as well as pledging improved access to medical products and financing.

These steps will help ensure comprehensive, robust systems are in place in all countries to protect everyone everywhere from the risk of future outbreaks and pandemics, WHO said in a news release.

“The historic decisions taken today demonstrate a common desire by member States to protect their own people, and the world’s, from the shared risk of public health emergencies and future pandemics,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.

He highlighted that the amendments to the IHR will bolster countries’ ability to detect and respond to future outbreaks, strengthen national capacities and improve coordination between nations on disease surveillance, information sharing and response.

“This is built on a commitment to equity, an understanding that health threats do not recognize national borders and that preparedness is a collective endeavour,” Tedros added.

Finalizing the pandemic agreement

Countries also agreed to continue negotiating the proposed pandemic agreement to improve international coordination, collaboration and equity to prevent, prepare for and respond to future pandemics.

WHO’s member States decided to extend the mandate of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body (INB), established in December 2021, to finish its work negotiating a pandemic agreement within a year, by the World Health Assembly in 2025, or earlier if possible.

Speaking at the closing of the World Health Assembly, Tedros applauded the delegates for their hard work.

“You have agreed on a path forward for the Pandemic Agreement, and I remain confident that you will bring it to conclusion,” he said.

The Assembly was held in Geneva from 27 May to 1 June under the overarching theme All for Health, Health for All.

IHR amendments

The new amendments to the IHR include the introduction of a definition of a pandemic emergency to trigger more effective international collaboration for events at risk of becoming pandemics. This definition raises the alarm level by building on existing IHR mechanisms, such as the determination of a public health emergency of international concern.

A pandemic emergency is identified as a communicable disease that risks widespread geographical spread, overwhelms health systems, causes substantial social or economic disruption, and necessitates rapid, equitable, and coordinated international action through comprehensive government and societal approaches.

Additionally, the amendments emphasize solidarity and equity in accessing medical products and financing by establishing a Coordinating Financial Mechanism. This mechanism aims to support developing countries in identifying and obtaining the necessary financing to address their needs and priorities in pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response.

The amendments also establish a States Parties Committee to promote and support cooperation for effective IHR implementation and create National IHR Authorities to improve coordination of the Regulations within and among countries.

What is IHR

The International Health Regulations (IHR) is a legally binding international instrument that define countries’ responsibilities in managing public health events and emergencies with potential cross-border implications.

Among other points, they establish crucial reporting obligations and criteria for identifying “public health emergencies of international concern”, and address international travel and transport requirements, ensuring health documentation compliance.

The Regulations were last updated almost 20 years ago, in 2005.