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WHO member countries approve measures to strengthen health regulations to better prepare for pandemics

GENEVA: The World Health Organization said its member countries on Saturday approved a series of new steps to improve global preparedness and response to pandemics such as COVID-19 and MPOX.

The WHO’s 194 member states have been negotiating for two years on an agreement that could strengthen cooperation before and during pandemics, following the well-known failures during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The countries agreed to amend the International Health Regulations adopted in 2005, including defining the term “pandemic emergency” and giving developing countries better access to financing and medical products, the WHO said.
The agreement came as the UN agency wrapped up its six-day World Health Assembly this year. Previously, plans to adopt a broader “treaty” to combat pandemics had been largely shelved due to disagreements between developing and richer countries over better sharing of technologies and the pathogens that cause disease outbreaks.

However, the groups have agreed to conclude negotiations on the pandemic agreement next year or earlier if possible, the WHO said.

“The historic decisions taken today demonstrate the shared desire of member states to protect their own populations and those of the world from the shared risk of health emergencies and future pandemics,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement.

“With this agreement, we are taking steps to hold countries accountable and strengthen actions to stop outbreaks before they threaten Americans and our safety,” US Health Secretary Xavier Becerra said on Saturday.

The changes to global health regulations were intended to strengthen the world’s defenses against new pathogens after COVID-19 killed more than seven million people, according to WHO data.

Lawrence Gostin, a public health law expert at Georgetown University, hailed a “major victory for health security” and wrote on X that the move would “simplify negotiations on the pandemic agreement.”

According to the WHO, countries have defined a pandemic emergency as a communicable disease that has or is at high risk of having “wide geographic distribution” and has exceeded, or may exceed, the response capacity of national health systems.

It is also defined as an outbreak that has caused or could cause “significant” economic or social disruption and requires rapid international action, the agency said.

Yuanqiong Hu, a senior legal and policy adviser at Doctors Without Borders, said the amendments passed on Saturday included “important provisions to ensure equity in access to health products during global health emergencies.”

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