Biden must resist the WHO’s power grab

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The once-in-a-century COVID pandemic was fueled by China’s obstruction and obfuscation and the World Health Organization’s (WHO) mismanagement.

Yet WHO has considered a pandemic treaty that does not hold Beijing accountable for COVID-19. Problematically, the treaty also expands the organization’s bureaucracy and transfers national decisions to international bureaucrats in Geneva.  

First and foremost, the draft accord fails a simple test: If it had been in place before the COVID-19 pandemic, would it have prevented China from hiding the outbreak? The Biden administration should not sign the accord and must persuade U.S. allies and partners to withhold their assent as well. And if the administration agrees to the flawed treaty, the Senate must reject it. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Congress recently that the negotiations on the draft treaty were unlikely to conclude in the near term. But Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, who leads the U.S. delegation to the annual World Health Assembly, which concludes on June 1, said it would be “tragic” if delegates could not agree to the pandemic treaty “especially given how far we’ve come.” The “who” may extend negotiations for a year but the delegates have not fixed the flawed draft treaty.

Four years ago, the WHO praised China’s disease outbreak response, even though the organization knew that Beijing was not adequately addressing the issue. On Jan. 29, 2020, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “I will praise China again and again, because its actions actually help in reducing the spread of coronavirus to other countries.” But Beijing actually fueled the pandemic.  

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Consequently, any draft treaty needs to highlight China’s misconduct explicitly, particularly since the WHO claims that the goal of the treaty is to “boost the world’s ability to better able to prevent and respond to the threat of future pandemics.” Yet China is not mentioned once in the current document. That underscores the influence of the Chinese Communist Party inside the WHO and its leadership.  

To this day, Beijing is still preventing a full investigation of COVID-19’s origins and punishing Chinese scientists who tried to warn about the outbreak. So, you can just imagine how unlikely China is to comply with the Pathogen Access and Benefit-Sharing System established by the draft treaty, to ensure that parties share pathogens with pandemic potential and associated material and information. That system would require the “rapid, timely, fair and equitable sharing” of products derived from that data. The new system has no mechanism to ensure China will comply, and you are safe assuming it will not.

In addition to its failure to address China’s counterproductive role, the draft treaty undermines Washington’s authority by trying to dictate American funding requirements without a decision from Congress. The agreement requires parties to “maintain, or increase, as necessary, domestic funding for pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response.” Bureaucrats in Geneva will surely interpret this clause to require Congress to maintain or increase funding for the WHO and its bloated new bureaucracy. 

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In a related drawback, the accord would create a Conference of the Parties, which would ensure the implementation of the treaty and periodically review it — but would significantly expand the bureaucracy even further. The WHO already has a 34-person executive board that meets twice a year and an all-members World Health Assembly that meets annually. Creating additional meetings in Geneva will waste money and resources, and create mechanisms for admiring problems rather than solving them.  

The manifold flaws of the draft treaty constitute merely the latest shortcoming of Tedros’s leadership. During Tedros’s tenure, the health organization has been mired in sexual assault scandals and mismanaged an Ebola outbreak in Africa. Rogue states such as Russia, Syria and North Korea have served on the WHO’s key policy making body, and Tedros has acquiesced to China’s pressure to keep Taiwan out of WHO meetings. Despite these developments, Tedros was rewarded with a second five-year term that ends in 2027. 

For all these reasons, the draft treaty faces an uphill climb toward ratification in the U.S. Senate. There is no pathway to 67 votes in the body’s current composition, and a Republican-led chamber next year will not ratify the treaty. Senators from both sides of the aisle will object to the treaty’s major elements being subject to additional negotiation and agreement.  

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Washington should not agree to an international agreement that does not hold Beijing accountable for the COVID-19 pandemic and reform the WHO to focus on its core missions, beginning with the director general’s resignation. The Biden administration should work with allies and partners to insist on delaying the consideration of the treaty to fix its flaws. 

Preparing for and preventing the next pandemic is a national security and public health priority. The draft treaty ignores the real problems: China, the WHO’s bloated bureaucracy and poor leadership. Washington must reject it. 

Anthony Ruggiero is an adjunct senior fellow at the Foundation of Defense of Democracies. He served as senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense on the White House National Security Council from 2019 to 2021.

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