Strengthening global health and international pandemic response

Australia is working closely with the global community, including the World Health Organization, to reform and strengthen global health systems. These include updates to the International Health Regulations and the development of a new pandemic response agreement.

About global health reforms

We work closely with the global health community, including the World Health Organization (WHO), to improve health and wellbeing for all people worldwide.

Global health reforms aim to:

  • strengthen international responses to pandemics
  • improve global health.

Taking part in these reforms helps to protect the health and wellbeing of Australians.

Australian sovereignty and global health reforms

Global health reforms do not affect Australia’s sovereign right to decide its domestic health policies. These include public health and safety measures such as:

  • border control measures
  • use of masks and vaccines.

For more information, see impacts on domestic Australian law.

Changes to International Health Regulations

The International Health Regulations (IHR):

The Working Group on Amendments to the IHR (WGIHR) will consider proposals for targeted changes to the IHR. They aim to strengthen the capacity of countries to prepare for, and respond to, health emergencies. All WHO member states, including Australia, can take part in the negotiations.

Changing the IHR to strengthen the rights and obligations it sets out for countries will help ensure they can detect and respond to future outbreaks more quickly. As at December 2023, the WGIHR has held 6 formal, multi-day meetings. A further 2 weeks of meetings are planned in 2024. Reports of each meeting are available on the WGIHR website.

The WGIHR is expected to conclude in May 2024, when proposed changes to the IHR are presented to the 77th World Health Assembly. WHO member states will consider whether to adopt the IHR changes at or after this meeting.

There were no decisions about the proposed IHR changes at the 76th World Health Assembly in May 2023.

New international instrument on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need to strengthen the international community’s response to future pandemics.

The WHO set up an Intergovernmental Negotiating Body (INB) in December 2021. The INB's role is to draft a new international instrument or treaty on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response (the pandemic instrument). Australia is actively involved in the INB.

As at December 2023, the INB has held 7 formal, multi-day meetings as well as several drafting group sessions. They also held a series of meetings to discuss proposals for a pandemic instrument. A further 4 weeks of meetings are planned in 2024. Reports of each meeting are available on the INB website.

The INB’s work is expected to conclude in May 2024, when the negotiated text of the new pandemic instrument is due to be presented to the 77th World Health Assembly. WHO member states will consider whether to adopt the pandemic instrument at or after this meeting.

There were no decisions about the pandemic instrument at the 76th World Health Assembly in May 2023.

Australia’s goals and priorities

The Australian Government’s engagement in multilateral global health organisations enables us to advocate for international rules, norms and standards in the interest of the health and wellbeing of the Australian community. We know certain health threats are more likely to arise overseas. International cooperation, guided by international rules, norms and standards, is critical for Australia to be able to monitor and respond to these challenges.

Australia is committed to strengthening the global health system to prevent and respond to future pandemics by:

  • building on lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic
  • taking part in negotiations on a new pandemic instrument and IHR changes. 

The following principles guide Australia’s engagement in both negotiation processes:

  • Ensure a new pandemic instrument and the IHR changes can support countries to respond to health challenges.
  • Better position Australia, our region, and the international community to prevent pandemics.
  • Maintain Australia’s sovereignty to make and implement decisions to protect the health of Australians.
  • Promote fairness, advance gender equality, and uphold human rights. 
  • Support engagement with private and civil society stakeholders.
  • Ensure alignment with other relevant international agreements.
  • Uphold intellectual property rights. 

Australia will advocate for the below priorities:

  • Enhanced global, regional and national health capacities to better position the international community to respond to pandemics.
  • Enhanced sharing of information and materials on diseases with pandemic potential.
  • Equitable and timely access to health emergency countermeasures, such as vaccines, medicines and personal protective equipment.
  • A One Health approach: recognising that the relationship between human, animal and environmental health should guide pandemic prevention.
  • Enhanced WHO ability to assess and respond rapidly to outbreaks.
  • Strengthened national and global investment in health emergency prevention and preparedness.
  • Effective governance, accountability, and compliance mechanisms to support the implementation of the pandemic instrument and IHR.

Who we work with

To achieve these goals, we and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) are working with:

  • other Australian Government agencies
  • state and territory governments
  • the Australian public
  • the international community
  • multilateral groups and organisations, including WHO and the G20.

Impacts on domestic Australian law

Once the new pandemic instrument and the IHR changes have been finalised, the Australian Government will decide whether to agree to them.

Signing a new international instrument and IHR changes may create new international legal obligations for Australia. However, this doesn’t automatically change Australian law – only the Australian Parliament can do this.

Any legally binding pandemic instrument and IHR changes must go through parliamentary processes before Australia can take binding action. This includes consideration by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT).

JSCOT undertakes consultation on proposed international instruments by inviting submissions from stakeholders and members of the public. Information on how to be involved in this will be available at Joint Standing Committee on Treaties at the relevant time.

After JSCOT consideration, any proposed changes to Australian law must be considered and passed by the Australian Parliament to become legally binding.

Learn more about the:

Consultation

The Australian Government is working with government agencies, state and territory governments, interest groups and academia to:

  • inform our negotiating positions for the new pandemic instrument and IHR changes
  • ensure they align with Australia’s priorities.

Between 7 August and 24 September 2023, in collaboration with DFAT, we invited the Australian community and key stakeholders to provide their views on:

  • what they wanted to see in the new pandemic instrument
  • amended IHR to inform Australia’s engagement in negotiations.

A report containing a summary of the key themes of the submissions received and the Government’s response is available at here.

Key dates

These new reforms are underway. To date, key milestones include:

  • December 2021 – the WHO established the INB
  • February 2022 – first meeting of the INB
  • November 2022 – first meeting of the WGIHR
  • January 2023 – WGIHR Review Committee Report published
  • May 2023 – INB to submit a progress report on the development of the new instrument to 76th World Health Assembly (no decisions are being made)
  • May 2024 – INB to provide the final instrument, and the WGIHR to provide final amendments to the IHR, to the 77th World Health Assembly for consideration.

Learn more about international health and reforms

Contact

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