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WHO: Austria to circulate revised pandemic response proposal

World News 2022-02-25, 7:11pm



Geneva, 24 Feb (TWN) – Austria will hold another informal round of discussions with WHO Member States on 3 March on its proposal for a Standing Committee on Health Emergency (Pandemic) Prevention, Preparedness and Response (SCPPR) of the Executive Board.

Austria will circulate the revised Terms of Reference (ToR) with Member States before 3 March.

[A decision to establish SCPPR was stalled at the last moment during the 150th Session of the Executive Board (EB150) on 24-29 January.]

The EB150 altered the draft decision (EB150/CONF./2) circulated by Austria that had proposed to establish the SCPPR due to objections from Paraguay that had several concerns, especially on the composition of the committee and the scope of its terms of reference.

The revised decision was adopted on 28 January and the text (EB150/CONF./2 Rev.1) now states that the EB decided to consider establishing a Standing Committee, instead of “decided to establish a standing committee”.

This means that Member States supporting Austria’s proposal have to come back to EB151 in May 2022 with a new proposal.

Austria had circulated the first proposal (EB150/17) containing the draft decision to establish SCPPR including its ToR through the WHO Director-General (DG), which raised eyebrows among several Member States.

Several concerns were raised on the proposal, even before EB150, relating to inclusivity, transparency, equity, and consistency with scientific advice.

This proposal had sought to amend the Rules of Procedure of the EB for empowering the standing committee to conduct closed meetings.

During the informal negotiations before EB150, many Member States required Austria to drop the contentious parts of the above proposal.

This led to a “conference room paper” (EB150/CONF./2) containing the modified first version of the draft decision text for the consideration of EB150.

This draft decision sought to establish the Standing Committee, with a condition that the first meeting of the committee will be after the formulation and adoption of the ToR through consultation with the Member States.

However, on 26 January, the third day of the EB150 meeting, Paraguay expressed its desire to postpone the adoption for further discussion.

It stated that the decision would be premature and sought more clarifications on the ToR as well as on the membership of the committee.

Paraguay also pointed out that a standing committee entails a possibility of closed sessions and therefore the scope of the ToR for the committee should be decided, before the Member States arrive at a decision to establish the SCPPR.

Further bilateral negotiations held between Austria, the initiator of the idea of a SCPPR and Paraguay led to the alteration and eventual adoption of the revised decision (EB150/CONF./2 Rev.1).

The final adopted decision (EB150/CONF./2 Rev.1) now requires the EB “to consider the establishment of” a SCPPR instead of “to establish” a standing committee of limited membership, contained in the earlier version of the draft decision text (EB150/CONF./2 ).

Operational Paragraph 1 (OP1) of the adopted decision text reads: “(The EB decided) in accordance with Rule 18 of the Rules of Procedure of the Executive Board, to consider establishing a standing committee, to be called the Standing Committee on Health Emergency (Pandemic) Prevention, Preparedness and Response, until the closure of the Health Assembly in May 2025, which will hold its first meeting at a date to be determined by the Board, following the adoption of its terms of reference by the Board;”.

Further, the decision text also dropped the phrase “of limited membership” from the previous draft.

This means the proposal for establishing a SCPPR with select members of the EB is not acceptable to Member States.

Austria however, in its last response to the decision text on 28 January, stated that a Standing Committee is, by definition, a committee of limited membership.

This difference of opinion can create further tensions, going forward in the negotiations on the SCPPR.

During the EB150 discussion, several Member States, both supporters and sceptics of the proposal, stated that the SCPPR should not duplicate existing mechanisms or interfere unnecessarily with existing legal frameworks.

Further, many Member States including India, Bangladesh, China, the Republic of Korea, Indonesia, Syria, Oman, Norway on behalf of the Nordic and Baltic countries, Pakistan, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Slovenia, Sweden, Uruguay, South Africa, Namibia, and Ghana on behalf of African Member States etc. recognized the need for discussing further the ToR of the SCPPR.

Ghana, on behalf of 47 Member States from Africa, stated as follows: “The African region shares the view that the Member States’ standing committee on pandemic and emergency preparedness and response could play a critical role in promoting coordination during the health emergencies. That is why we must ensure that said committee is inclusive, transparent and supportive of the scientific and technical advice provided to the DG during public health emergencies. Because [of] the necessity for transparency and inclusivity, we emphasise the need for membership of the committee to reflect the diversity of the WHO’s membership and for all its meetings to be conducted in line with the rules of procedure of the EB, allowing for participation without votes by all interested Member States not represented on the committee.

“Furthermore, as a subsidiary body of EB, the powers of the sub-committee on pandemic preparedness and response must be limited to the mandate of the EB. Therefore, we do not support any proposal that proposes the sub-committee on pandemic preparedness and response with the power to bypass the EB, make decisions without reference of the EB or take actions with effect of various treaty obligations under IHR 2005. Furthermore, we need to pay attention to the possible dangers of the sub-committee on pandemic preparedness and response providing political perspectives on scientific or technical matters relating to declaration of health emergencies.”

India called for a detailed Member State consultation and stated that “it is important that such a committee is established in a stepwise consultative manner with a certain degree of clarity about its functions and terms of reference before its launch.”

Kenya, which aligned with Ghana’s statement to submit the discussions to the Member States Working Group on Strengthening WHO Preparedness and Response (WGPR), kept certain proposals for consideration in the development of the ToRs.

Firstly, it emphasised the need for the participation of all interested Member States in the SCPPR to reflect the principles of transparency and inclusivity in WHO’s governing body structure.

Secondly, it called for limiting the mandate of the SCPPR consistent with the mandate of the EB. Adoption of the rules of procedure similar to those of PBAC was suggested by Kenya in this regard.

Finally, Kenya highlighted the need for clarity in the ToR regarding the line of communication between the SCPPR and the WHO management.

Kenya squarely stated that it is not in support of any communication that would circumvent the EB. It required all decisions, guidance or recommendations to the Director-General to be channelled through the EB.

Meanwhile, there exists a difference of opinion on how to formulate and adopt the ToR of the SCPPR.

The draft decision in this regard requests the DG “to facilitate further informal consultations in an inclusive, transparent manner among Member States to finalise the draft terms of reference of the Standing Committee on Health Emergency (Pandemic) Prevention, Preparedness and Response, taking into account the deliberations at the 150th Executive Board, with a view to submit the terms of reference for consideration by the 151st Executive Board in May 2022”.

Nevertheless, countries such as the United Kingdom and Austria pressed for a greater role for the DG and the Secretariat.

They requested the DG to produce a paper outlining his vision on the Standing Committee that would relate to other aspects of the global health architecture and then take forward the discussions based on the same.

The Nordic and Baltic Countries were also generally in favour of having discussions on the terms of reference based on a report by the Secretariat.

On the other hand, countries from the African Region requested to refer the subject matter to the WGPR.

The US also requested the DG to engage on specific areas with the Secretariat. However, it proposed to have a formal task team or standing committee established by the 151st session of the EB and called upon all Member States to dedicate time, resources and efforts to improve WHO governance issues.

China, on the other hand, stated that the functions of the SCPPR should be in line with the provisions of the International Health Regulations (IHR) and therefore relevant discussion be integrated into the revision of the IHR, which is currently the subject matter of discussion in the WGPR.

Japan also expressed a similar concern, while supporting the adoption of decision EB150/Conf2/2. It called for further discussion on the ToR and its alignment with discussions on strengthening the IHR.

It stated that the SCPPR must also avoid duplication with other mechanisms and the new international instrument on pandemics.

Australia, on the other hand, focussed more on the substantive part of the SCPPR ToR and in this regard, it emphasised three points:

1. “The committee should focus on governance for the health emergencies programme allowing for in-depth discussion and reporting to the EB in the same manner as the Programme, Budget and Administration Committee of the Executive Board (PBAC).

2. The committee should not encroach on the technical advantage in leadership roles of the DG and the IHR Emergency Committee.

3. The terms of reference should allow for an evaluation and adjustment at an appropriate time. It should include the financial impacts of the committee and look at how to support inclusive membership such as decoupling representation from the EB membership.”

France, on behalf of the European Union (its 27 Member States) and the Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, Ukraine, Republic of Moldova, and Georgia, stated as follows: “In the coming weeks, we should consider the terms of reference such as “sub-committee should be conducive to optimal oversight by Member States of WHO’s work in health emergencies and reducing the gap between the recommendations and their implementation”. It is also essential to integrate the creation of this sub-committee and to report its reflection on the governance of the WHO and in the process of strengthening the global governance of the acute health crisis.”

Norway, responding on behalf of all Nordic and Baltic Countries, stated that the Austrian proposal triggers some interesting debate about the respective roles of the Member States and Secretariat.

According to Norway, the proposal raises concerns about general principles of WHO’s governance. It stated that the EB agendas are overcrowded making in-depth discussions difficult and that limits the ability of the EB to fulfil its functions.

It further stated that the Nordic and Baltic countries therefore agree with the ambition to enhance the opportunity of the governing bodies to provide guidance to the Secretariat on WHO health emergency policy and to review the Secretariat’s performance.

However, it cautioned as follows: “In the proposal (by Austria), this committee is also foreseen to have an advisory function to the DG upon declaration of PHEIC (Public Health Emergency of International Concern). We have concerns regarding such a function because it could lead to duplication and delay of WHO’s response. These are situations where the facts are often unclear and where WHO might not yet have been able to respond. The DG would already have received independent expert advice from the IHR Emergency Committee. The Secretariat’s response should essentially be guided by clear rules and norms.

“We believe that this proposal may (make an internally) create a dynamic where the DG would feel compelled to await the conclusion of this committee before acting on the advice by the Emergency Committee and WHO technical staff, possibly resulting in a delay in communication. The assessment of what is the appropriate response and recommendation in such events must in our view remain the prerogative of the DG.

“Therefore, we suggest efforts to ensure that Member States are informed by the Secretariat in a timely manner of PHEIC if declared. We are not ready to support an advisory function of Member States in such a situation as proposed. We would welcome further discussion on the terms of reference of the committee at the 151st meeting of the EB based on a report by the Secretariat. We agree with the proposal to take a final decision on the establishment of this committee after a proper evaluation.”

- Third World Network