Pandemic Treaty Discussion Deferred With Appeals for High-Level Political Commitment to Fix WHO 
Healthcare workers in Nigeria fight to maintain vaccination services during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Key World Health Organization (WHO) member states agreed to postpone a potentially polarising discussion on a ‘pandemic treaty’ until November, according to a World Health Assembly ‘draft decision’ published Tuesday.

The proposal – by 26 entities including the European Union, USA, UK and key countries from each WHO region – specifies that a special WHA session should be “dedicated to considering the benefits of developing a WHO convention, agreement or other international instrument on pandemic preparedness and response”.

This special WHA would establish “an intergovernmental process” to draft and negotiate this instrument, “taking into account the report of the Working Group on Strengthening WHO Preparedness and Response to Health Emergencies”. 

Previously, the US had advocated for a high-level ministerial meeting to consider the possibility of an international instrument or treaty.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Germany delivered a statement on behalf of 59 countries that now support the  special session of the WHA in November to discuss a possible pandemic treaty.

“In our view, a pandemic treaty under the roof of the WHO is the preferred way forward to strengthen the multilateral health architecture,” said Germany in the statement.

Mike Ryan, WHO Health Emergencies Programme Executive Director, appealed Tuesday for “the highest-level political commitment” to address the organisation’s weaknesses in the face of pandemics. 

Dr Mike Ryan, WHO Executive Director of Health Emergencies Programme.

Reciting a lengthy list of epidemics that had ended with unmet promises to fix global responses, Ryan said, “If I had a dollar for every recommendation made in this space, I would have a completely funded programme.”

“My personal view is that we need a political treaty that makes the highest-level commitment to the principles of global health security — and then we can get on with building the blocks on this foundation,” Ryan told a lunchtime briefing on pandemic preparedness.

Since November the European Union has advocated a pandemic treaty similar to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, but has faced opposition from the US, Russia and Brazil. (The tobacco convention provides signatories with evidence-based tobacco control strategies that they are obliged to implement, albeit incrementally.)

Russia’s WHA representative told Tuesday’s plenary that there was no need for additional requirements beyond the International Health Regulations, as these are binding global regulations to prevent the spread of disease.

US public utterances have been vague, although an earlier Health Policy Watch report indicated the US was trying to stall discussions by proposing various diplomatic measures such as a high-level ministerial meeting to consider setting up an “international instrument”.

US Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra

Addressing Tuesday’s plenary, US Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra called for “urgent action this year to strengthen health security and pandemic preparedness” by “improving global triggers.” 

Measures should include a “sustainable global health security financing mechanism” and developing “surge capacity” for global manufacturing of personal protective equipment, vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics, said Becerra.

However, comments from various US officials during the Assembly indicate that the country is concerned about the financial responsibilities attached to any legal framework, which might be difficult to get domestic support for.

EU Upbeat About Pandemic Treaty

Meanwhile, the EU delegations to the United Nations in Geneva were positive about the draft decision.

“Ahead of the World Health Assembly, the EU and a group of countries from across all WHO regions built a large coalition to ensure that WHA74 would pave the way for establishing a process for a Framework Convention on Pandemic Preparedness and Response,” according to a statement from the EU delegations.

“The decision to be adopted today by the Assembly will set up a special session of the WHA in November 2021 to focus on this one issue with a view to starting the formal negotiation process immediately thereafter.”

Also Tuesday, Charles Michel, President of the European Council, reiterated the EU’s call for an international treaty to “foster a comprehensive approach to better predict, prevent and respond to pandemics, strengthen global capacity and resilience to ensure fair access to medical solutions, and bolster international alert systems that are sharing … cutting-edge medical research.”

Three Perspectives on WHO Inadequacies

Helen Clark, co-chair of the WHO’s Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPR), and former Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Three key reports – from the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee (IAOC), the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPR), and the International Health Regulations Review Committee (IHRC) – have laid bare various WHO failures in the face of COVID-19.

The IPPR presented its report to the WHA on Tuesday. This team was led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf. Clark told Tuesday’s technical briefing the panel “has recommended the adoption of a pandemic framework convention within six months, using powers under Article 19 of the WHO constitution”. 

“We see the convention as being complementary to the International Health Regulations,” Clark said. “We think its negotiation should be facilitated by the WHO, with involvement at the highest levels of that negotiation of governments, scientific experts and civil society.”

This convention would fill gaps in the current legal framework, clarify the responsibilities of states and international organisations, reinforce states’ pandemic-related measures and support WHO’s empowerment, she said. 

It also would set up principles and mechanisms for financing preparedness and early response, and for the “global public goods of vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics, and essential supplies and technology transfer.”

More pointedly, Clark noted that “WHO needs to have unfettered access to the sites of an outbreak, and it shouldn’t need to go through a negotiated process to get there.”

IHR review co-chair Lucille Blumberg said her committee also supports a pandemic treaty to address regulatory gaps that “mostly concern detection, assessment, and alert provisions, as well as preparedness for core capacities. … There are other elements required for a comprehensive global architecture for emergency preparedness and response which seem to fall outside of the IHR. 

“This has made us consider there may be benefits in agreeing on a global legal mechanism that would outline such provisions while supporting and complementing IHR implementation — and this could be done through a pandemic treaty,” Blumberg said.

Image Credits: Twitter: @WHOAFRO, WHO.

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