WHO calls for strengthened role as US proposes new pandemic fund

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was responding to proposals to establish a separate global health fund. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA - Efforts to strengthen global health security in a future health crisis will succeed only if the role of the World Health Organisation (WHO) is also enhanced, the agency’s head said on Thursday (Feb 17), as its biggest donor, Washington, proposed a new global pandemic prevention fund.

Speaking via a video link shared with Reuters at a Group of 20 meeting of finance leaders in the Indonesian capital, Dr Tedros was responding to proposals to establish a separate global health fund tasked with delivering emergency funds, vaccines and other medical needs.

"It's clear that at the centre of this architecture, the world needs a strong and sustainably financed WHO... with its unique mandate, unique technical expertise and unique global legitimacy," Dr Tedros told a panel discussion at the meeting.

"Any efforts to enhance the governance, systems, and financing of global health security can only succeed if they also enhance WHO's role," he said.

During the discussion, Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza told the panel the "WHO must remain at the centre of the global health architecture", but added that "we need to work even more to create a stronger architecture on health policies".

At a separate discussion, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen urged G-20 members to back the proposed fund for pandemic prevention and preparedness.

Seeking to dispel reservations raised by some among the world’s 20 biggest economies, Ms Yellen said it would not siphon off money needed to strengthen the WHO, or create a new multilateral body.

"We don’t see this as a pool of money that sits idly waiting to respond to the next pandemic," she said, adding that the new fund would spur investment in disease detection and surveillance systems against future crises.  

World Bank Group President David Malpass told the same panel the agency was "working rapidly on a new financial intermediary fund... to increase financing for pandemic preparedness and response."

Singapore’s Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who is co-chairing the new G-20 international panel on the financing of pandemic preparedness and response, said: "What we do to use the Financial Intermediary Fund - to build up surveillance networks, global manufacturing capacity and country-level and regional health capacities - will have immediate benefit in a continuing Covid pandemic, plus continuing utility in building up public health systems and addressing chronic diseases once we are past the Covid pandemic, and it will of course be critical in preparing for the next pandemic. 

"The highest social returns will in fact come from early investments that address those priorities together," he added, according to his comments released by Singapore's Ministry of Communications and Information.

Mr Tharman is one of three co-chairs of the Group of 20 High Level Independent Panel (HLIP) on Financing the Global Commons for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, which was proposed under this year’s G-20 Italian presidency.

The other two co-chairs are former United States treasury secretary Lawrence Summers, and former Nigerian finance and foreign minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

Ms Yellen said HLIP's work presents a road forward that will meet objectives like a multilateral mechanism for health and finance collaboration, which had been missing before Covid-19 pandemic. The panel and other experts have consistently highlighted that underfunding of health and preparedness gaps leave the world vulnerable to the next pandemic threat, she noted.

She added: "Following the recommendations of the High Level Panel, we’re going to be able to do a great deal to address vulnerabilities relating to future pandemics, and I think it's important that the global community come together in the far-sighted ways that Tharman has just described, to make sure that we don’t suffer the enormous health and economic consequences that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused the globe."

Indonesia is the host of the G-20 this year and the country's health minister, Mr Budi Gunadi Sadikin, last week questioned whether the WHO was best placed to raise capital for a global health fund that would be required to deliver emergency aid, including funds, vaccines and diagnostics, in any future pandemic.

Under the current system, he told foreign journalists, countries were "basically on their own" when it came to securing vaccines and vital medical supplies.

The United States, the WHO's top donor, is also pushing for the creation of a separate fund, directly controlled by donors, that would finance prevention and control of health emergencies.

Strengthening the global health architecture is one of Indonesia's priorities under its leadership of the G-20, President Joko Widodo and Mr Sadikin have said.

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