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The COVID-19 Pandemic, the Failure of the Binary PHEIC Declaration System, and the Need for Reform

This post was originally published on the Verfassungsblog as part of our joint symposium on international pandemic lawmaking.

By Ilja Richard Pavone

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised unprecedented challenges for the global health framework and its long-term consequences are not yet in full sight. The legal and institutional regime aimed at preventing and controlling the spread of infectious diseases, grounded on the International Health Regulations (IHR) was heavily criticized.

The alarm mechanism based on the declaration of Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), in particular, has been severely tested. A PHEIC is an extraordinary event that constitutes a potential public health risk through the international spread of a disease outbreak. The WHO Director-General bases his decision to “ring the bell” upon the technical advice of an Emergency Committee (EC) carrying out “an assessment of the risk to human health, of the risk of international spread, and of the risk of interference with international traffic.”

A PHEIC, then, is declared only when an event is already sufficiently acute and has started to spread internationally. It is not an early warning, but a formal alert, and in the case of COVID-19 it was issued with extreme delay only on 30 January 2020, (one month after notification of early cases by the Chinese government), after Beijing had already adopted quarantine measures around the city of Wuhan, and draconian measures to curb the spread of the disease in the country had been announced.

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Geneva, Switzerland - December 03, 2019: World Health Organization (WHO / OMS).

Towards Member-driven International Pandemic Lawmaking

This post was originally published on the Verfassungsblog as part of our joint symposium on international pandemic lawmaking.

By Ching-Fu Lin and Chuan-Feng Wu

The COVID-19 pandemic has blatantly exposed the flaws of the World Health Organization (WHO) and its International Health Regulations (IHR) in addressing cross-border communicable diseases. Commentators have examined the IHR’s decades of struggle in fulfilling its objectives to control cross-border pandemics such as COVID-19, pointing out problems over the level of obligation, precision of language, delegation of power, settlement of dispute, and lack of enforcement power, among others. What has been overlooked, however, is the crucial question of whether the institutional design of the IHR enables the WHO and its Member States to deliver good global pandemic governance.

We argue that the IHR is ill-designed: its rules and mechanisms are disproportionately tied to the Director General’s (DG) exercise of power, rendering insufficient member access to and participation in core decision-making and greater tendency of regulatory capture. For example, the IHR failed to facilitate the timely declaration of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) due to the DG’s and the Emergency Committee’s misinterpretation and misapplication of rules allegedly driven by political considerations. On 23 January 2020, even when COVID-19 cases had already been found outside of China, thereby indicating the risk of cross-border transmission (IHR Article 12(4)(e)), the second meeting of the Emergency Committee decided to confine the definition of “international spread” to “having actual local spread of COVID-19 in a country beyond China,” instead of “having the potential for, or a risk of, cross-border transmission,” and refused to declare a PHEIC. The WHO is also criticized for abusing its bureaucratic influences to further the agendas of individual Member States like China, letting politics override science.

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