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.
THE FACTS: 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.
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.
As the WHO hosts its 75th World Health Assembly beginning on Sunday, some social media users are misrepresenting proposals the U.S. is bringing to the conference, where delegates from 194 member states convene to discuss priorities.
Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. has drafted a series of amendments to a legal framework called the International Health Regulations, which define countries’ rights and obligations in handling cross-border public health emergencies. The U.S. amendments call for greater accountability and transparency in responding to such emergencies. But some remarks, including those by former U.S. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, bloggers and conservative political commentators, are misrepresenting the 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 last week. The segment was posted on Facebook, where it was viewed more than 32,000 times.
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 AP 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,” he wrote in an email.
Gostin, who also helped write the 2005 version of the IHR, cited the fact that China signed the IHR, but violated it by delaying reporting of the initial COVID-19 outbreak and later pushing back against the WHO investigation into its origins. The U.S. amendments seek to prevent this from happening, by tightening requirements for reporting information to the WHO and allowing them to conduct unimpeded investigations, among other changes.
Dr. David Freedman, the president-elect of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, who served on a WHO committee of IHR experts for a decade, reiterated that the WHO “has zero enforcement, police or punitive powers.” Further, the IHR is mostly focused on preventing the spread of infectious diseases and pandemics, he said. Climate change, gun control or even specific measures like vaccinations or lockdowns are not mentioned.
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 still being drafted, but experts told the AP there’s no evidence it would cede any national decision-making powers, either.
“Unfortunately, there has been a small minority of groups making misleading statements and purposefully distorting facts,” WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus said during a news briefing Tuesday, clarifying that the WHO does not override member nations’ sovereignty.