Another pandemic an ‘absolute certainty’, WHO chief warns on visit to Dublin

Claims that Ireland will cede sovereignty to UN body under new pandemic agreement are ‘patently untrue’, says Dr Hans Kluge

Another pandemic is an “absolute certainty” for which Ireland and other countries need to prepare, the World Health Organisation’s senior official in Europe has warned during a visit here.

“We just don’t know when or where it will emerge,” said Dr Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe.

“The emergence of novel infectious diseases is a natural condition of living on the planet. Modernity and globalisation have only sped up the processes whereby they can travel around the world at breakneck speed, as we saw with Covid-19, and will see again,” he said.

The world would have learned nothing from the Covid-19 pandemic if it did not invest in preparedness for future health shocks, he told The Irish Times in an interview.


“If you think that Covid-19 was the biggest global health threat of your lifetime, chances are you are wrong. Our world is changing and, with it, its burden of disease, in unpredictable ways.” French health authorities recently fumigated Paris to counter the spread of Zika and dengue-carrying tiger mosquitoes, he said.

The Belgian public health expert is in Dublin this week for talks in the Department of Health, which are likely to cover ongoing international negotiations on a new pandemic agreement. WHO says the agreement is essential to help prepare for and respond to the next global health emergency, but critics have claimed it will give the UN agency too much power to intervene in individual countries.

Misinformation and disinformation were undermining the negotiations on the agreement, Dr Kluge said, just as during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“There are those who say the agreement will cede sovereignty to WHO; that it will give the WHO power to impose lockdowns or vaccine mandates on countries. These accusations are patently untrue. This agreement will not, and cannot, cede sovereignty to WHO. Period. Only member states – including Ireland – can agree on the eventual accord and how to implement it.”

A draft of the agreement, which aims to prevent a repeat of the unequal access to vaccines seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, commits signatories to providing “time-bound waivers of intellectual property rights” so manufacturing of medicines can be accelerated in a crisis.

Ireland, whose pharma sector is worth more than €40 billion annually, contends any changes to IP rights should be negotiated at the World Trade Organisation – not the WHO.

Dr Kluge said he was aware of Ireland’s “reservations” on this point but insisted WHO would be led by its member states.

“Every country has its position. However, I would urge all countries to approach these negotiations with an all-of-humanity approach to pandemic preparedness because infectious diseases know no borders. We owe it to future generations to learn the lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic and build the global health architecture that doesn’t leave anyone behind.

“We all have a shared responsibility – not to mention shared consequences – for the next pandemic, whenever and wherever it arrives. We simply cannot see another pandemic or other health emergencies caused by emerging infectious diseases where access to vaccines is a privilege for a relative few.”

While paying tribute to Ireland for being the first country to introduce a workplace smoking ban, he warned against complacency due to our rising obesity rates and high levels of heavy alcohol consumption.

Dr Kluge said he was impressed that Ireland had increased the size of the health and care workforce by 19 per cent since 2020 and by its efforts to build a sustainable workforce for the future, including the new consultant contract.

“The mental health crisis wrought by the pandemic – including and especially for our overworked health and care workforce – was a long-overdue wake-up call. If we aren’t able to retain and recruit, build supply, optimise performance, plan and invest, then the whole system will collapse and, with it, the very fabric of society.

“I am also encouraged by Ireland’s recent efforts to move towards universal health coverage through the Sláintecare plan. Achieving universal health coverage and making the Irish health system more efficient are prerequisites to achieving the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, and indeed, would hold Ireland in good stead when the next health emergency strikes.

“Many countries in Europe – indeed the world – are watching Ireland with interest to see how this transition goes.”

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Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is a former heath editor of The Irish Times.