Geneva, 18 May 2020 – The French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the first virtual World Health Assembly from his offices in France, where he insisted on the importance of global solidarity to defeat the COVID19 pandemic. Macron also announced that the EU would drop new funding in the coffers of the World Health Organisation, the UN health agency. 

The UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, called country-members to task, by praising the solidarity that some have showed and expressing concern for the divergent approaches to and responses that, in his view, have exacerbated the COVID19 crisis.

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The US Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, par contre, has not minced words when addressing the World Health Organization annual ministerial-level meeting prefacing that “COVID-19 has tragically taken hundreds of thousands of lives, impacted millions of people, and done deep damage to the world economy.”, and then stating flatly that “one of the primary reasons this outbreak spun out of control: there was a failure by this organization to obtain the information that the world needed, and that failure cost many lives.”. 

The hint is clear, the US suggests that China has dodged sharing information with the WHO much earlier, when clusters of cases were being reported in the Wuhan region. In the US there are reports that as early as December 2019, and even November 2019, cases were identified in China, and California.  The President of China agreed on cooperating with an investigation to find out more about the origin of the virus.

Health Secretary Azar stressed that the US has allocated over $9 billion to the global COVID-19 response, including more than half a billion dollars in direct investments by the US Health and Human Services to support 40 of the most at-risk countries.

Mr. Azar spoke about the vaccine trials, an area where the US is showing leadership, pouncing ahead of European and Asian pharma and academic institutions, as American researchers reported the first positive results from a clinical trial. 

While the general climate is somber, there is a definite pull on making sure that organisations work in a more transparent fashion and countries step-up on cooperation, as Spain’s Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez has said, maybe this is an opportunity to strengthen multilateralism. Actually she said revive, which during a pandemic seems to strike a chord. Is international cooperation on a respirator?

World Health Assembly’s first day is mostly health ministers and heads-of-state making sweeping and inspired speeches (you can follow them live here where they will be till midnight CET and later). Most speakers today so far called for solidarity, and a call for greater transparency in WHO’s operations. 

There seems to be momentum for an independent review of the UN health organisation’s response to the pandemic, with the promise of a visit to China by the WHO leadership on the agenda as soon as conditions permit, as well as making sure that member states comply with the International Health Regulations, the voluntary, non-binding legal framework that country-members have pledged to abide to manage global public health concerns in a coordinated fashion.

Issues of accountability are the tonic of this first virtual WHA, and what seems like the perennial issues around Taiwan’s participation as an observer. 

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