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WHO health regulations don’t infringe on US decision-making

May 18, 2022 GMT
FILE - The logo and building of the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, 15 April 2020. Some social media users are falsely claiming that the Biden administration is proposing amendments to the WHO's International Health Regulations that would transfer U.S. sovereign authority over health policy decisions to the organization's director-general.(Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP, file)
FILE - The logo and building of the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, 15 April 2020. Some social media users are falsely claiming that the Biden administration is proposing amendments to the WHO's International Health Regulations that would transfer U.S. sovereign authority over health policy decisions to the organization's director-general.(Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP, file)
FILE - The logo and building of the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, 15 April 2020. Some social media users are falsely claiming that the Biden administration is proposing amendments to the WHO's International Health Regulations that would transfer U.S. sovereign authority over health policy decisions to the organization's director-general.(Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP, file)
FILE - The logo and building of the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, 15 April 2020. Some social media users are falsely claiming that the Biden administration is proposing amendments to the WHO's International Health Regulations that would transfer U.S. sovereign authority over health policy decisions to the organization's director-general.(Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP, file)
FILE - The logo and building of the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, 15 April 2020. Some social media users are falsely claiming that the Biden administration is proposing amendments to the WHO's International Health Regulations that would transfer U.S. sovereign authority over health policy decisions to the organization's director-general.(Martial Trezzini/Keystone via AP, file)

CLAIM: The Biden administration is proposing amendments to the World Health Organization’s International Health Regulations that would transfer U.S. sovereign authority over health care decisions to the WHO director-general.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. The International Health Regulations, which are aimed at detecting disease outbreaks, allow the WHO director-general to declare a public health emergency of international concern. The proposed U.S. amendments seek to strengthen requirements for reporting such emergencies. Member countries agree to abide by the guidelines, but the WHO does not have the power to enforce them, nor can it interfere in other countries’ decision-making processes, according to experts.

THE FACTS: As the World Health Organization prepares to host its 75th World Health Assembly this weekend, in which delegates from 194 member states convene to agree on the organization’s priorities and policies, some social media users are misrepresenting proposals the U.S. is bringing to the conference.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. has drafted a series of amendments to a legal framework called the International Health Regulations. The IHR defines countries’ rights and obligations in handling public health emergencies that have the potential to cross borders. It was last amended in 2005 after the global SARS epidemic. The U.S. amendments now call for greater accountability and transparency in reporting and responding to such emergencies.

But some remarks, including those by former U.S. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, bloggers and conservative political pundits, among others, are misrepresenting the U.S. proposals to falsely claim they would take health policy decision-making powers away from U.S. officials and grant unilateral authority to the WHO’s director-general.

“These amendments would transfer our health care decision-making out of U.S. hands, into the hands of the director-general of the WHO,” said Bachmann, a former congresswoman from Minnesota, while calling into a conservative radio show on Thursday. The segment was posted on Facebook, where it was viewed more than 32,000 times. She also repeated the claims during another interview that was posted on Twitter.

Bachmann went on to suggest that the same amendments would allow the director-general to “order all sorts of radical edicts,” including imposing global lockdowns, vaccine mandates and business closures, as well as force climate change policy and even gun control measures on member nations. Bachmann did not respond to a request for comment.

Experts familiar with the International Health Regulations say these assertions are misleading, and the idea that the director-general could impose enforceable mandates on other countries is unfounded.

Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University law professor and director of the university’s WHO Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law, told The Associated Press that the director-general only has the power to make recommendations, not enact laws or otherwise dictate national policy decisions.

“It is utterly untrue that the IHR would interfere with health care decisions or transfer such decisions to the WHO Director-General,” Gostin wrote in an email. “The IHR amendments would ask countries to promptly and truthfully report infectious disease outbreaks, and WHO would offer assistance in managing the outbreak. But it could not force a country to allow WHO staff to interfere with its public health decision making.”

Gostin, who also helped write the 2005 version of the IHR, cited China as an example. China signed the IHR, but violated it during the pandemic by delaying reporting of the initial COVID-19 outbreak and later pushing back against the WHO investigation into its origins.

Gostin and other experts say the amendments seek to prevent this from happening.

The U.S. amendments to the IHR tighten requirements for reporting information to the WHO surrounding public health emergencies of international concern. They ask the WHO to develop early warning criteria for assessing, updating and communicating risks posed by such emergencies. They also modify the guidelines surrounding investigations and assistance in such instances. In the past, countries could refuse to cooperate with the WHO’s expert teams. Now, the amendments seek to have all signatories agree not to block such actions.

The amendments also seek to allow a committee to assess member countries’ compliance with the framework, though they do not ascribe any specific punishments or legal consequences for those that don’t.

Dr. David Freedman, the president-elect of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, served on a WHO committee of IHR experts for a decade. He reiterated that the WHO “has zero enforcement, police or punitive powers.”

“They can’t sanction a country, they can just say ‘hey you signed this treaty, you’re supposed to abide by this treaty,’” said Freedman.

Further, the IHR is mostly focused on preventing the spread of infectious diseases and pandemics, the experts said. Climate change, gun control or even specific measures like vaccinations or lockdowns are not mentioned.

“It’s pretty obvious, I don’t think there’s anything hidden in the language that they’ve inserted,” Freedman added. “These immediate changes clearly are only reflective of disease outbreaks.”

Some social media users are also conflating the IHR with a separate effort the WHO has launched to develop a global accord on pandemic prevention and response. That accord is different from the IHR and is still being drafted. Experts told the AP there’s no evidence that the accord would cede any national decision-making power, either.

WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus addressed some of the misinformation during a media briefing Tuesday.

“Unfortunately, there has been a small minority of groups making misleading statements and purposefully distorting facts,” Ghebreyesus said, clarifying that the World Health Assembly does not override member nations’ sovereignty.

“WHO is an expression of Member States’ own sovereignty and WHO is entirely what the sovereign 194 Member States want WHO to be,” he added.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to requests for comment.

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This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.