May 7, 2021 | Policy Brief

China and Russia Combine Forces to Undermine WHO Reform

May 7, 2021 | Policy Brief

China and Russia Combine Forces to Undermine WHO Reform

As diplomats prepare for the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) annual agenda-setting meeting, China and Russia have combined forces to undermine EU-led efforts to reform the beleaguered health body. Failing to resolve the WHO’s many longstanding structural and governance deficiencies, including increasing accountability for rogue member states, could jeopardize efforts to prevent the next global pandemic.

The WHO’s World Health Assembly, currently scheduled to meet from May 24 to June 1, serves as the organization’s principal venue to finalize the specialized agency’s upcoming program of work. This year’s meeting will take place in the shadows of the WHO’s stalled investigation into COVID-19’s origins, which stems from China’s repeated refusal to hand over key virus data to WHO investigators. The European Union has proposed a resolution that aims to address the WHO’s “serious shortcomings” in responding to the pandemic by strengthening the WHO’s preparedness for global health emergencies.

The 17-page document reiterates the “need for timely and transparent sharing of epidemiological and clinical data” that may indicate “a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC),” the term used by the WHO to describe an outbreak. Many of the proposal’s recommendations appear squarely focused on addressing China’s pandemic deceptions as well as reaffirming the requirement that member states comply with existing health treaties, such as the 2005 International Health Regulations. The draft also seeks to improve WHO transparency and accountability when declaring PHEICs. This move appears designed to address the WHO’s failure to sound the alarm not only about COVID-19 but also about SARS and Ebola in 2003 and 2014, respectively.

Unsurprisingly, China and Russia have rejected a number of the proposal’s recommendations. Both countries, along with Syria and Pakistan, pushed back against demands that a new WHO working group should submit a report on COVID-19’s origins to the 2022 World Health Assembly. Beijing and Moscow also objected to draft language emphasizing the importance of respecting “human rights” when responding to global health emergencies. They also objected to clauses aimed at countering disinformation during future pandemics.

For its part, China further objected to demands that member states freely share pathogen sequencing data, instead asserting that such sharing must occur “in accordance with national and international laws and regulations.” Russia, in turn, opposed clauses that acknowledged the “many negative public health impacts, social, economic and gender equality consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Moscow sought to undercut initiatives aimed at increasing information sharing, including efforts to improve the WHO’s ability to optimize resources and its authorities to better collaborate across borders during a pandemic.

While not directly leading this reform effort, the United States, as the WHO’s top funder, will play an important role in determining its ultimate success or failure. The Biden administration has yet to articulate a comprehensive strategy to meaningfully reform the WHO. Also unfilled is the U.S. seat on the WHO’s Executive Board, which is responsible for determining the World Health Assembly’s annual meeting agenda and implementing its decisions. The Executive Board nominates the WHO’s director general, a responsibility that will soon take on increasing significance as the organization’s current chief, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, comes up for re-election in 2022.

Lastly, Congress, in evaluating future WHO investments, should think strategically about earmarking funds to establish greater control over the WHO’s ever-expanding mandate, with an emphasis on streamlining its sprawling operations and addressing major gaps in its pandemic surveillance system.

Craig Singleton, a national security expert and former U.S. diplomat, is an adjunct China fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and China Program. Craig recently published an FDD research memo titled “Diplomatic Malpractice: Reforming the WHO After China’s COVID Cover-up.” For more analysis from Craig, CMPP, and the China Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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