Merkel, Macron back efforts to improve WHO as meeting opens

GENEVA — French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday were among leaders rallying around efforts to strengthen the World Health Organization and the world’s ability to prepare for and defend against pandemics.

It came as the U.N. health agency opened its annual assembly, with a draft resolution in the works that acknowledges missteps in the response to COVID-19. The sweeping proposal would seek to boost pandemic response, stabilize WHO’s funding and ensure greater access to health care — including to vaccines, tests and treatments linked to the coronavirus.

The European Union and Vanuatu were behind the resolution, which was to be considered during the eight-day assembly. It would create a working group on strengthening WHO’s readiness and response to health emergencies.

“We have to have institutions that are up to the task, that meet our ambitions,” Macron said by video during the mostly virtual meeting. WHO, he said, must be “robust” and “flexible” in times of emergency and crisis. “And it must be completely transparent to make sure that people trust the organization.”

“There must not be any political pressure and there must not be any suspicion of pressure that has been exerted,” he added.

Merkel threw her backing behind the idea of a “global health threat council” and said leaders should provide WHO with “lasting financial and personal support.”

“We have been talking about this for years, but now it is all the more important to act,” she said.

The resolution — a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press — cites COVID-19 two dozen times. It breaks little new ground and aims mostly to garner consensus and commonality of purpose in the aftermath of the economic and human devastation wreaked by the pandemic.

The resolution, which would set up a six-person working group to report to the assembly next year, acknowledged “serious shortcomings” in the world’s ability to prepare, prevent, detect and respond to health emergencies.

The text, if approved, would ask WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to make “concrete suggestions” for levels of alert in times of health emergencies, “with clear criteria and practical implications for countries.”

Diplomats behind the measure said they hoped it could garner consensus among WHO’s 194 member states.

The WHO chief, after leading a round of applause for health care workers who have battled the pandemic in often-agonizing conditions, said the world remains in a “very dangerous situation” — and that while he was speaking 400 people would die of COVID-19.

He reiterated his concerns about unequal access to vaccines, saying that over 75 percent of vaccines have been administered in 10 countries. He called for a “massive push” to ensure the vaccination of 10% of the population of all countries by the end of September — and at least 30% percent by year end.

“There is no diplomatic way to say it: A small group of countries that make and buy the majority of the world’s vaccines control the fate of the rest of the world,” he said.