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Vol 61 No 10

Published 14th May 2020

The plot against Tedros

After failing to oust the WHO chief, Washington is focusing on protecting its commercial rights to a Covid-19 vaccine

African diplomats are pushing back against an attempt by United States officials to undermine Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus's leadership of the World Health Organisation (WHO) ahead of its general assembly in Geneva, which is due to open on 18 May. They have singled out the role of US ambassador in Geneva, President Donald Trump appointee Andrew Bremberg, who accuses Tedros of bias towards China.

In a statement of 13 May seen by Africa Confidential, African ambassadors in Geneva condemn the campaign 'from certain political quarters' seeking to discredit Tedros and the WHO. Given that he is Ethiopian, it adds that there is an 'unfortunate racial undertone to the criticism'.

With a sideswipe at the US government's management of the pandemic at home – it has the world's highest casualty rates with 83,225 deaths and 1.24 million recorded cases by 13 May – the African ambassadors added: 'Failures at the national level should not be attributed to the WHO… now is not the time for petty bickering and blame-shifting. We are all in this together and solidarity is the imperative of the moment.'

The WHO's World Health Assembly (WHA) was due to address how international measures against the coronavirus pandemic could be better coordinated and more help for countries with weaker health services provided. 

US officials led by Bremberg want the Assembly to discuss Tedros's leadership and claims of bias towards China. US officials have been demanding Tedros give Taiwan full observer status at the coming Assembly. On 12 May, the US Senate passed a resolution in support of the move. A motion from Belize demanding Taiwan's admission to the WHA is likely to disrupt proceedings and trigger a spat with China.

After Taiwan elected Tsang Ing-Wen as its new President in 2016, its government rejected Beijing's 'One China' policy, under which Taipei had accepted observer status at international gatherings. It now wants representation as an independent nation and has the support of the Trump administration.

Despite its loss of observer status, Taiwan still takes part in all the WHO's specialised meetings and technical committees. It seems Washington wants the Taiwan issue to add to its wider pressure on Beijing over its handling of the initial outbreak of the coronavirus.

Tedros says any decision on Taiwan is not his to make, only that of the Assembly as a whole.

European diplomats, many of them critical of US officials' attacks on the WHO in the midst of the pandemic, have been trying to formulate a compromise resolution at the Assembly which endorses Tedros's leadership and accepts the need for an 'independent and comprehensive evaluation… of the WHO-coordinated international health response to Covid-19', according to a draft seen by Africa Confidential.

On 22 April, Ambassador Bremberg tried to organise a meeting with African ambassadors in Geneva to express US concern about what it called the 'lack of independence' of WHO. 

Bremberg has been trying to negotiate either the removal of Tedros or an agreement that he should be barred from a second term in 2023. The numbers are against Bremberg. Tedros was elected Director-General of the WHO in 2017 by 133 of the 185 member states, including all of Africa, China and others. 

During a phone call with Anatole Marie Nkou, Cameroon's Ambassador to the UN in Geneva who coordinates health affairs for the African diplomatic corps there, Bremberg asked if he could help arrange a platform to speak to the African diplomats about US policy.

When Nkou told other African ambassadors of Bremberg's overture, it was unanimously rejected, along with an emphatic condemnation of US tactics by South African Ambassador GJ Mtshali. Nkou was told to reaffirm to Bremberg Africa's unanimous support for Tedros's leadership of the WHO stated on 10 April.

A White House staffer, advising the President Trump on domestic policy, Bremberg was nominated for the UN role in Geneva in September 2018, although it took until October 2019 for his posting to be confirmed in the US Senate, 50-44. Two Republicans voted against him due to his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape. In Geneva he has cut an awkward figure, given the importance of women's rights and reproductive health in the UN's development programmes.

Bremberg's failure to win any significant support for his campaign against Tedros follows growing criticism of the US government, including from many US opposition politicians, of its decision to suspend funding for the WHO in the middle of the pandemic. 

Insiders at WHO headquarters say the many long-standing relationships between the organisation and US research institutions has been unaffected. Robert Redfield, director of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, quickly disassociated his organisation from President Trump's attacks on the WHO.

A WHO insider told us that 'the sense is to just keep the wheels moving through to November and then if Trump loses, the problem will go away, and if he wins, then he is likely to forget about us anyway'. 

The loss of US contributions to the WHO is not as crippling as might have been intended because Tedros has concentrated on diversifying its funding away from dependence on member states. Currently the US is about $200m in arrears on its membership dues.

Global lead
Beyond the skirmishing over Taiwan's status, there are bigger issues about the international handling of the pandemic. Attempts to get the UN Security Council to declare the pandemic a matter of international security foundered on US insistence on referring to the disease as the 'Wuhan virus' and China's opposition. 

In 2014, it was US insistence on getting the Ebola epidemic declared an international security issue at the UN that triggered co-funding from many countries for emergency assistance and the establishment of a special committee to coordinate operations among UN agencies on healthcare, drugs and equipment, food supply and logistics. 

So, a draft resolution being prepared by European Union members, Australia, New Zealand and Zambia for the WHA on 18 May reasserts the constitutional mandate and 'the leadership role of the WHO and the fundamental role of the UN system in catalysing and coordinating the comprehensive global response to the Covid-19 pandemic.'

More controversially, from Washington's point of view, the resolution calls for the 'universal and equitable access to all quality health technologies and products in response to the Covid-19 pandemic as a global priority.' 

It continues to state that the supply of these drugs must be consistent with the relevant international treaties and flexibilities 'including the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health.' Put simply, this clause requires any commercially produced vaccine against Covid-19 supplied through the UN system to be made available cheaply.

Such a stipulation might undercut the hope of stratospheric profits among some of the biggest pharmaceutical companies should they win the race to develop the first effective vaccine. The contract to supply vaccines to some 7 billion people would be record-breaking and there is already fierce competition among rival teams of researchers to make the breakthrough.

Last week, an EU initiative raised $7.8bn to fund vaccine research – an effort conspicuously boycotted by the US government which expects its privately funded research institutions to work independently, spurred by the incentive of massive financial gains. 

At the same time, China, which has studiously stepped away from the US-Africa dispute over Tedros, is pushing ahead with its own research for a vaccine. Last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Beijing of destroying samples of the virus as part of a cover-up on its origins and to hold back the research efforts of other countries.

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