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On July 15, German Federal Minister of Health Jens Spahn spoke at the hybrid event co-hosted by the Multilateral Dialogue Konrad Adenauer Foundation Geneva and the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. The event, moderated by Professor Ilona Kickbusch, (Founder and Chair of the International Advisory Board, Global Health Centre) and Professor Suerie Moon (Co-Director, Global Health Centre), was attended by high-level guests including UNAIDS Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima, ambassadors, notable NGO directors, and over two dozen journalists
The discussion following the minister’s visit to the WHO provided a deeper look into Germany’s vision for the future of global health in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and focused on its positioning to four key debates ranging from tackling the on-going crisis to preventing future pandemics:
i) from reforming the WHO to be better equipped to meet current and future challenges,
ii) assessing ways to achieving vaccine equity,
iii) devising the scope of a potential pandemic treaty,
iv) to Germany’s role in global health post upcoming elections.
Reform: How can member states contribute to making the WHO stronger and more independent?
In conversation with the moderators, Jens Spahn first reiterated Germany’s commitment to the WHO, both financially and politically, which he cited as the reason for his Geneva visit. As the largest funder of the WHO, with almost 1 billion US Dollars in 2020-2021, Germany wants to encourage other Member States to step up their funding commitments to the WHO.
The pandemic showcases that international cooperation needs strengthening, and this is what Germany wants to achieve by stepping up funding which should be used for: increasing vaccine availability and access, developing treatments and supporting the emergency work of WHO. However, going beyond supporting the status quo, the minister highlighted the importance of using the momentum to reform the WHO while the agency’s shortcomings are still fresh on everyone’s mind.
“What I would like to see and what I ask of our fellow Member States, is that we give the WHO the tools and resources to be able to meet our expectations,” Spahn responded when asked about what reforms he would like to see. “We all have high expectations of what we would like the WHO to do, however, when it comes to stepping up funding, there are differences.”
Echoing Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus’ appeal, the Federal Minister calls for a move away from overwhelmingly ear-marked funding to allow the organisation to act more flexibly and sustainably.
Vaccine Equity: Is a TRIPS waiver needed to achieve global access?
Suerie Moon acknowledged Germany’s leadership in the pandemic and the call for strong financial support and international cooperation, for instance with regard to COVAX.
When asked about the more contentious TRIPS waiver - the proposal for temporary suspension of intellectual property for COVID-19 technologies - Jens Spahn argued that the ideological debate is a distraction from the problem we should focus on, namely making vaccines accessible as quickly as possible. He highlighted technology and knowledge transfers as more feasible ways forward and pointed out that if the production continues at current rates, there will be a global surplus of vaccines by next year. “If we can reach this goal without interfering with intellectual property rights, then let’s do it that way”.
In a question on the topic, UNAIDS Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima, recalled the yearlong fight for access to AIDS medication: “How can profit-makers decide when and with whom to share that technology with? We need to maximise supply; donations alone will not fix this.”
The minister agreed that sharing technology is essential, but points out that how the technology would be shared is the key issue. “Just having the patent doesn’t make you a vaccine producer next week”, he highlighted. The minister stressed that it requires cooperation, tech transfer and scaling up to make vaccines accessible to the global population. He also pointed out that the mRNA vaccine production is a very different experience to the AIDS epidemic and medicine shortage.
“For the first time in human history, we have a vaccine available while the epidemic is still on-going”, Minister Jens Spahn, said observing that vaccine production is upscaling at unprecedented rates.
Pandemic Treaty: Why do we need a binding tool and what should it encompass?
“There are too many declarations and too little implementation”, Spahn noted, outlining that despite international opposition a pandemic treaty is an important tool to prepare for and contain future pandemics. We have no tool in place to make sure Member States are held accountable, which affects the whole world. A treaty would enable a discussion on this new balance of obligations and possible sanctions.
The minister also highlighted the need to encourage real commitment by deliberating and voting on this treaty.
In the context of the G7, Spahn wishes that Member States strengthen the existing venues of international cooperation, rather than opening more platforms, fora and bodies: “Let’s focus on WHO, its governance and funding, [...] but not build up additional institutions, bodies and panels”.
Looking Ahead: How dependable is Germany’s commitment to health following the elections and Angela Merkel’s departure?
Minister Spahn assured that beyond Angela Merkel’s chancellorship, Germany’s commitment to global health is deeply embedded in parliament and government, with almost all parties having a strong focus on global health issues. On that note, he argues that both the German government and its people are committed to the country’s international engagement in health. This does not only stem from humanitarian motivations but also from national interest. Not least, there is also a sub-committee in the Bundestag for global health.
“The root of the policy will remain”, Spahn stresses about Germany’s global health commitment.
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