Photographer: Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

Businesses From PepsiCo to Pfizer Have a Stake in Who Leads WHO

  • UN health agency shapes policy on pandemics to pharmaceuticals
  • New director-general to be elected at May 23 meeting in Geneva

The World Health Organization’s 194 member-states will vote for a new director-general next week, choosing a doctor to lead the planet’s top technical agency on all matters health.

With a $4 billion annual budget, WHO’s influence extends to virtually all of humanity, from food quality and environmental hazards to immunizations and the response to pandemics. One of three candidates will be elected at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on May 23 for a five-year term to provide the leadership, muster the resources, and implement the strategies that are central to global health, security, and development.

From left; Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Sania Nishtar, and David Nabarro.

Photographer: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

Nominees to succeed current Director-General Margaret Chan on July 1 are David Nabarro (U.K.); Sania Nishtar (Pakistan); and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (Ethiopia).

Whoever wins the top spot will also need to drum up financial support for the beleaguered, 69-year-old agency after the Trump Administration flagged reducing funding to the United Nations, of which the WHO is part.

Here are 10 reasons why the election is of interest to the global business community:

1. Pandemic Warnings

MONROVIA, LIBERIA - OCTOBER 13: Health workers dress in protective clothing before taking the body of an Ebola victim from the Island Clinic Ebola treatment center on October 13, 2014 in Monrovia, Liberia. A planned strike at Ebola treatment centers was averted as most nurses and health care workers reported for work, many saying they could not in good conscience leave their patients unattended. Health workers have been asking for increased hazard pay. They are one of the most high-risk groups of Ebola infection, as nearly 100 of them have died in Liberia alone. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Health workers dress in protective clothing before taking the body of an Ebola victim from the Island Clinic Ebola treatment center in Monrovia, Liberia in October 2014.
Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

WHO decides when to raise the alarm on pandemics and international health emergencies, which influence governments’ decisions on everything from pharmaceutical purchases to travel policies. The response to disease threats resonates across industries, especially aviation, tourism, insurance and re-insurance, whose businesses are among the hardest hit during major disease outbreaks. West Africa’s Ebola epidemic in 2014-15 cost Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone a combined $2.8 billion, the World Bank estimated.

2. Controlling Tobacco

WHO sets enforceable rules on tobacco control, restricting the way cigarette makers can advertise, promote, and market their products, making the agency’s policies especially important to companies such as Philip Morris International Inc., British American Tobacco Plc, Japan Tobacco Inc. and Imperial Brands Plc.

3. Healthy Diets

WHO makes dietary and nutrition recommendations aimed at tackling conditions from obesity and hypertension to stroke and heart attack. Salt and sugar targets influence the ingredients of foods and beverages, including those made by Nestle SA, Unilever, General Mills Inc., Kellogg Co., PepsiCo Inc. and the Coca-Cola Co.

4. Procuring Medicines

Hcv Hepatitis C Virus. Single Stranded Rna Virus In A Nucleocapsid. Image Hdri Made According To A View Under Transmission Electron Microscope, Viral Diameter 50 Nm. Half The People Infected With The Hepatitis C Virus Develop Chronic Hepatitis, They Never Heal And Remain Carriers The Rest Of Their Life, Cirrhosis And Hepatic Insufficiency Can Eventually Manifest Themselves. Virus With Parenteral Transmission. (Photo By BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images)

Hepatitis C Virus under transmission electron microscope.

Photographer: BSIP/UIG via Getty Images

WHO formulates a model list of essential medicines that recommend the most important drugs governments should stock for the health of their people. Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies can get a sales boost from having a product added to the list. The list is especially important for makers of generic medications, such as Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., Mylan NV, Novartis AG’s Sandoz unit and Sun Pharmaceuticals Industries Ltd.

WHO is pushing for wider access to ground-breaking new treatments for hepatitis C, cancer, and multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, and is lobbying to make the medicines more affordable -- an effort that has ramifications for drugmakers such as Gilead Sciences Inc., Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Roche Holding AG and AstraZeneca Plc. It also helps other UN agencies procure billions of dollars of pharmaceutical products by vetting manufacturers to ensure they meet WHO standards and specifications.

5. Health-Insurance for All

WHO is helping governments achieve universal health coverage by 2030 with the goal of ensuring even the poorest people have access to safe and effective essential services and treatment. Already, governments are being encouraged to have sufficient high-priority equipment on hand, including endoscopes, imaging and scanning machines, linear accelerators for radiotherapy, and other devices made by companies from Becton, Dickinson & Co. and Medtronic Plc, to Olympus Corp. and Siemens AG.

6. Breast Is Best

WHO sets standards for the marketing of breast-milk substitutes that restrict some promotional practices of infant-formula makers, which include Nestle SA, Danone and Mead Johnson Nutrition Co., which is being acquired by Reckitt Benckiser Group Plc.

7. Calling the Shots

WHO scrutinizes the safety and efficacy of vaccines, and makes recommendations on which ones should be routinely administered to children, which ones should be stockpiled, and which ones should be developed for future use. Immunization recommendations are important for vaccine makers, including Merck & Co., Sanofi, GlaxoSmithKline Plc, Pfizer Inc. and the Serum Institute of India Pvt.

8. Saving Antibiotics

Broiler chicks drink water at a poultry farm in Ranga Reddy district, Telangana, India, on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015. The expansion of livestock production is set to continue in India and other developing countries as rising incomes and out-of-home consumption drive demand. Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg
Broiler chicks drink water at a poultry farm in Telangana, India.
Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

WHO is trying to stave off resistance to antimicrobial medicines, including broad-spectrum antibiotics that are losing their potency because of overuse. The agency is also encouraging the development of new infection-fighting medicines. Working with veterinary, food and agriculture organizations, WHO is pushing for restrictions on the use of critically important antibiotics in food and livestock production that have relevance for food retailers, such as McDonald’s Corp. and Yum! Brands Inc., as well as Merck & Co., Bayer AG, Zoetis Inc. and other companies with animal-health interests.

9. Battling the Bottle

WHO is tackling the harmful use of alcohol, helping governments implement policies that curb excessive boozing and communicate its public health risks -- a program with implications for beverage companies such as Diageo Plc, Pernod Ricard SAAnheuser-Busch InBev NV and Carlsberg A/S in Europe to Suntory Holdings Ltd. and Asahi Group Holdings Ltd.

10. Labeling Carcinogens

WHO reviews scientific evidence to appraise the cancer-risk of everything from agricultural chemicals, such as Monsanto Co.’s Roundup, and 2,4-D made by companies including Dow Chemical Co. and Nufarm Ltd., to drinking scalding-hot beverages, and eating red meat.

“There is enormous interest in the business community about global health security,” said Lawrence Gostin, the Founding O’Neill Chair in Global Health Law at Washington’s Georgetown University. “Because of disruption in markets and consumer behavior, the potential for restrictions on travel, trade and tourism can make a huge difference.”

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