September 15, 2016

UNGA 2016: The world wakes up to AMR

Matthew Robinson, MA
Policy and Advocacy Officer
United Nations General Assembly. Photo: UN Photo/Loey Felipe
United Nations General Assembly. Photo: UN Photo/Loey Felipe

Every year in mid-September, the world’s diplomatic corps descends upon midtown Manhattan for two weeks of snarled traffic, road closures, and general mayhem. The cause of this paralysis? The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA)—a gathering of all the highest levels of the world’s governments to address those issues so pressing that only a global response will suffice.

In recent years, global development, including global health, has featured prominently on both the UNGA formal and side-event agendas. This year the bulk of the formal agenda—set by Fiji which holds the Presidency of the General Assembly—focuses on oceans, climate change, and refugees and migration. However, the assembly also includes a full-day, high-level summit on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) scheduled by the outgoing Norwegian General Assembly President. Though other global health issues may not feature on the formal agenda, there are a number of hot topics that will certainly be highlighted at side events throughout the week.

Here are the major global health policy issues GHTC will be tracking:

Antimicrobial Resistance
A CDC scientist studies a drug resistant strain of bacteria. Photo: James Gathany
A CDC scientist studies a drug resistant strain of bacteria. Photo: James Gathany

With the publication of the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance (also known as the O’Neill report), which was commissioned by government of the United Kingdom to comprehensively examine the global problem of AMR, the full scale of the human and economic cost of the rise of AMR is becoming clear. Seven hundred thousand people die each year globally from AMR infections, and the United States alone spends an extra US$20 billion on health due to AMR. As a result, global attention has focused on how best to both support development of novel antibiotics and conserve antibiotics of last resort to prevent the development of further resistance. At the full-day summit on September 21, world leaders will convene to discuss how the global community can collectively address AMR. A number of organizations are also sponsoring side events and conferences devoted to the myriad ways to stem the tide. It will remain to be seen whether any political commitments or new bilateral AMR initiatives emerge.

Zika/Ebola/Pandemic preparedness/Global Health Security Agenda

The West African Ebola outbreak and the ongoing Zika pandemic have focused the world’s attention on the fundamental weakness of international pandemic preparedness efforts. With the continuing international spread of Zika, strengthening the international community’s ability to prevent, detect, and respond to outbreaks remains a global priority.

The gathering of so many world leaders in one place for UNGA will create a ripe environment to foster novel partnership models to strengthen health systems to stand up to future outbreaks. While not featured on the formal agenda, a number of high-level side events on health systems strengthening and partnerships could spur interesting new initiatives post-UNGA.

Access to Medicines

On Wednesday, the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines (HLP), convened in late 2015 by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, published its final report offering recommendations for “remedying the policy incoherence between the justifiable rights of inventors, human rights law, trade rules, and public health in the context of health technologies.”

The issues tackled in the report and the panel’s recommendations for improving access to health technologies are highly contentious with health advocates, industry, and other trade and intellectual property stakeholders holding divergent viewpoints on how best to achieve this aim. This tension is reflected in the final report itself, which though released as a consensus document, also contains six separate commentaries by HLP members advocating positions other than those taken in the report.

Given the timing of this report release, it should be a central topic of discussion at UNGA as various groups choose whether to lend their support to carrying forward the recommendations or criticize the panel for going too far or not far enough. Looking further forward, this issue will also feature prominently at a March special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

While your author expects that these will be the key global health policy issues addressed at this year’s UNGA, there are always a few last-minute surprises. Needless to say, GHTC will keep you informed of exactly what is going on in the midst of the midtown Manhattan mayhem all week long.