Philip manages the coalition’s multilateral policy analysis and advocacy work. He develops and implements outreach strategies to the various United Nations agencies and other multilateral organizations to ensure that the coalition is advocating a consistent...read more about this author
WHO EB falls short of moment as health setbacks and deadlines loom large
GHTC reflects on the 154th session of the World Health Organization (WHO) Executive Board (EB) meeting, which, broadly, offered little to meet the moment we are in, with looming deadlines over the pandemic accord and International Health Regulations processes and setbacks in progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals.
2024 will be a pivotal year for global health. With a record number of national elections, including one in the United States, many multiyear global health architecture reform processes are set to come to a close, and with several major replenishment and resource mobilization campaigns taking place, there is a palpable sense of “now or never” permeating global health discussions.
The World Health Organization (WHO) Executive Board (EB) meeting, which serves as the kickoff to the multilateral calendar, served as the first test on whether stakeholders could come together to ensure that progress continues. While the week offered welcome moments of political support for research and development (R&D), there is a sense that leaders have not yet met the moment to get the world back on track toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Here are some key reflections from a busy week in Geneva:
Deadline looms over pandemic accord and International Health Regulations processes
As in previous years, the WHO’s role in global health emergencies was a central topic at the EB. Just weeks before the fourth anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, delegates received a new update from WHO on strengthening the global architecture for Health Emergency Prevention, Preparedness, Response and Resilience, which focused on the need for sustained political leadership and financing to drive the reform agenda forward.
And while not on the official EB agenda, the work of amending the International Health Regulations (IHR) and finalizing a pandemic accord also loomed large. Little of the debate focused on specific proposals of these deliberations, though advancing access to medical countermeasures, vaccine equity, and regionally distributed manufacturing all got mentioned during these sessions. Instead, member states zeroed in on the process itself, with delegates seeking to inject a new sense of urgency to finalizing deliberations and adhering to the May deadline. Despite this, Poland became the first country to publicly question the feasibility of the current timeline, calling for a possible extension, signaling that there is also trepidation around how much progress can be achieved with limited negotiation days.
The sessions on health emergencies also became the platform for geopolitical proxy battles, with the Russia and Ukraine and Israel and Palestine conflicts spilling over into the global health security debates. Several heated exchanges nearly derailed proceedings, and much airtime was spent addressing grievances.
Tuberculosis, immunization, and neglected tropical disease reports highlight setbacks
Multiple sessions during the week highlighted the continued disruption in healthcare caused by the pandemic. Despite reaching the midpoint in implementation of the SDGs, global progress remains off track in many key areas. This includes the fight against tuberculosis and neglected tropical diseases, which the WHO highlighted as requiring a renewed focus from member states. The importance of investing in local production, strengthening laboratory capacity, and ensuring new tools are better adapted to the communities they are meant to serve were all key themes that came out of these sessions.
Routine immunization levels are also still lagging behind pre-pandemic rates, with uneven progress regionally. In its report to the EB, the WHO has documented that the current progress is not enough to meet targets set in the WHO’s Immunization Agenda for 2030. Low- and middle-income countries spoke of the cost of vaccinations as a major financial burden and challenge.
Yet there were notes of optimism too: 2024 is also expected to be a major year for immunization, with the rollout of two new malaria vaccines and two new polio vaccines, bringing the world closer to eradicating some of the planet’s deadliest diseases.
Antimicrobial resistance shifts into bigger focus
With the UN High Level Meeting on Antimicrobic Resistance (AMR) scheduled later this year and the WHO’s global action plan on AMR coming to an end in 2025, AMR was expected to be a prominent topic at this year’s meeting. While it made its way back on to the official agenda, it unfortunately did not receive as much attention as anticipated, with the agenda item being pushed late into the evening on Friday.
Member states ultimately advanced a resolution sponsored by Thailand which calls on member states to support R&D for new tools to combat AMR, to strengthen the capacities and standards of laboratories, and to participate in the WHO’s Global Antimicrobial Resistance and Use Surveillance System (GLASS), though several countries also wished to discuss the decision further ahead of the World Health Assembly (WHA) in May where it will be up for formal adoption. In his remarks on the topic, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus echoed the calls for stronger surveillance; the development of new vaccines, diagnostics, and antimicrobials; and measures to make these interventions accessible and affordable.
New resource mobilization push for WHO
EB members supported the proposal for an investor round to raise funds for WHO, which would likely be held in November, with uncharacteristic enthusiasm last week. The WHO Working Group on Sustainable Financing’s report to the 2023 WHA highlighted that WHO’s budget is “up to 86% dependent on generous donors” and that only “roughly 14% of WHO’s finances are truly predictable”.
The future effectiveness of WHO will depend on changing how the agency is funded. Progress has been made to increase the percentage of assessed contributions received in the form of member state dues, but far more flexibility and predictability in voluntary contributions will be needed to meet this moment.
The idea of a WHO investment round, similar to those hosted by the Global Fund and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance was accepted in principle by last year’s WHA. Dr. Tedros was charged by member states to provide a framework and justification at this year’s EB, and he delivered his investment case.
The investment framework is closely aligned with WHO’s 14th General Program of Work and the new strategic roadmap for the agency, but this WHO resource campaign will also have to compete with a number of replenishments set for this year, including for Gavi, as well as a resource push for the World Bank Pandemic Fund.
This year feels like a make-or-break moment for the SDGs and the 2030 agenda. Yet the EB felt too much like business as usual, with ambition getting bogged down in a bloated agenda, geopolitical battles, and the minutia of internal processes. The urgency highlighted by several delegates on EB topics was not matched in the action or the commitments countries made in Geneva last week. While the EB did not jeopardize the potential of many processes moving forward, it did too little to contribute to the necessary forward momentum we will need to achieve the ambitious agenda set out by global leaders.