Finally, Pandemic Accord Negotiations Head for Text-Based Talks
INB co-chair Precious Matsoso (right) injects some humour into proceedings after two long weeks of negotiations while co-chair Roland Driece looks on.

Text-based negotiations on a pandemic agreement will finally start at the next meeting of the intergovernmental negotiating body (INB) on 18 March, with the draft negotiating text due to be circulated to  World Health Organization (WHO) member states by this Friday, 8 March.

This follows an intense two weeks of the eighth round of INB negotiations, which ended on Friday (1 March) with member states expressing their confidence in the co-chairs and their deputies, who have been marshalling the informal talks so crucial to this process.

The INB has held 385 hours of formal meetings and over 80 hours of informal meetings over the past two years, and member states need to ensure this time was not wasted, co-chair Precious Matsoso told INB members at the close of the body’s eighth meeting last week.

South Africa’s Matsoso, injecting her characteristic good humour into the dry negotiations, closed the meeting with a quote from singer Sister Sledge, reminding member states that “we are family”.

However, like in most families, the INB has plenty of squabbles to iron out ahead of adopting any meaningful agreement.

Conditions for equity

Pakistan representing the Group for Equity at the pandemic agreement negotiations.

Pakistan, on behalf of the Group for Equity, delineated the most important areas for its largely developing country members at the closing session of INB8. These are also the issues over which there is no agreement.

Importantly, they want pathogen access and benefit sharing (PABS) system to “guarantee equitable benefit sharing on an equal footing, prohibiting anonymity to ensure transparency and accountability”.

PABS is one of the biggest sticking points in the negotiations, as previously reported by Health Policy Watch.

They want the agreement to contain “normative” technology transfer provisions in which countries have the right to “request and demand” tech transfer and licensing.

The group also wants country obligations, particularly related to surveillance and prevention, to be “proportionate to the respective capabilities and context”, build capacity in weaker countries and be in line with “the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR)”. 

CBDR is commonly used in environmental law and means that countries’ obligations depend on their socio-economic status and historical contribution to environmental problems. 

The Group on Equity also wants “a predictable and sustainable financial mechanism” for pandemic prevention, preparedness and response that is part of the UN and “will ensure that resources are available in a timely and efficient manner, facilitating swift and effective responses to current and future health emergencies. 

Finally, the group wants governance over the agreement to be “designed to maximise participation and ensure accountability to the parties” and for a legally binding agreement that is “applicable and operable for all parties without any barriers”.

The Group for Equity comprises 29 countries representing an interesting alliance of largely African, Latin American and South and South East Asian countries, namely: Argentina, Bangladesh, Botswana, Brazil, China, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Egypt, El Salvador, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Fiji, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, Namibia, Pakistan, Palestine, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines,. South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand and Uruguay. 

Ethiopia representing the position of the Africa group during pandemic agreement negotiations.

Ethiopia, on behalf of the 47 African member states plus Egypt, wants a “multilateral pathogen access and benefit-sharing system with clear data governance and accountability for sharing pathogens” and a “dedicated financing mechanism with inclusive governance”.

Wishing for more progress

The European Union, on behalf of its 27 member states, urged negotiators to look at areas of agreement rather than divergence, which “are not insignificant” and provide “room there for a solid basis for continued good work that can get us to a successful outcome already by May”.

However, Germany “had somewhat wished to make more progress” during INB8  in “finding convergence”.  

“Time to come to convergence is extremely short. The text that will be presented next week is going to be crucial for all of us. It has to facilitate a meaningful outcome along the full PPR cycle,” said Germany.

“We also need to continue our discussions on an effective system for pathogen access and benefit sharing (PABS). PABS needs to be implementable. It must not hinder research and access and it needs to ensure reliable benefit-sharing with the necessary broad participation of the private sector.” 

The European Union at INB 8

Stakeholders: In or out?

A bone of contention during the negotiations is how little space civil society organisations (CSO), academics, the private sector and other stakeholders have had to express their views.

The Pandemic Action Network (PAN) organised two civil society sessions during the past INB meeting with the participation of around 100 organisations, many of which appealed for better access to the negotiations.

Last week, STOPAIDS, PAN and a number of other groups wrote a letter to the INB Bureau asking for the “official involvement of CSOs in all remaining negotiations in the INB process for a new pandemic agreement”.

“We demand the same rights accorded to civil society including as allowed during negotiations on (for example) the UNFCCC [UN Framework Convention on Climate Change], and the Convention on Biological Diversity,” they state.

“Not only will access for CSOs be crucial for reasons of transparency and legitimacy, but also because CSOs provide technical expertise and community testimony through briefings for negotiators during the official sessions. A broad range of member states has welcomed contributions from civil society during INB 8 but these have predominantly been made inside events in the margins of the negotiations. It is vital we form part of the process.”

The INB Bureau, in consultation with the WHO Secretariat, will propose a couple of options for the inclusion of stakeholders at the next meeting but Matsoso said that member states had agreed that stakeholders would not be in the room during negotiations. However, there could be regular reportbacks or a session where stakeholders briefed member states about the draft, she added.

Germany stressed that “strengthening our engagement with civil society, stakeholders and experts from all relevant areas is crucial. We look forward to their structured and meaningful inclusion during INB 9”.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.