World Needs Ambitious Pandemic Accord – ‘Failing is Not an Option’ says German MP
German MP Andrew Ullmann

Many challenges remain in negotiating an international pandemic treaty, experts tell a committee of the German Parliament.

As COVID-19 cases decline, multilateral polarization and a weary public leaves countries at risk should another global pandemic strike, German MP Andrew Ullmann stated on Monday at the German Parliament (Bundestag). 

The Bundestag’s Global Health Subcommittee held a technical briefing on the international pandemic accord currently being negotiated by World Health Organization (WHO) member states to ensure better global pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.

“It is imperative to complete reforms to address the gaps in international health crises management,” Ullmann said. “We need to strive for an ambitious pandemic agreement. But, of course, this is easier said than done since interests between countries show a strong divide.”

The pandemic accord aims to address areas currently not covered by the International Health Regulations (IHR) – the gobal laws to prevent the international spread of disease – and improve the international community’s ability to prevent and respond to pandemics in a just and effective manner.

“There were huge gaps in the COVID-19 response, and there are three key objectives. First, one must be better prepared – from the community to the country, to the regional to the global level. Two, to have a better chance at preventing future pandemics, and three, to have a better and more coordinated response, and that is the aim,” Steven Solomon, WHO’s Principal Legal Officer, told the hearing.

Steven Solomon, WHO Principal Legal Officer

According to the process agreed in December 2021 by governments at a special session of the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s highest decision-making body, an intergovernmental negotiating body (INB) will aim to produce a final draft of the pandemic accord for consideration by the 77th World Health Assembly in 2024.

Dr Clare Wenham, Associate Professor of Global Health Policy at the London School of Economics, told the hearing that the International Health Regulations were binding on member states but required maintaining a balance between “protecting against the international spread of disease and doing so in ways which are commensurate with the risk to international travel and trade, but it’s not a panacea.”

Dr Clare Wenham

Pointing out several other challenges surrounding the agreement and implementation of an international treaty, Wenham noted that “there have been challenges within the IHR around data sharing and whether there is free flowing and timely information being shared between countries and WHO.”

China, in particular, has come under heavy scrutiny and criticism for its perceived refusal to share information or data on COVID-19. 

WHO is a member-state agency but has no physical compliance mechanism to enforce its member states to implement regulations other than, as Wenham pointed out, “name and shame mechanisms.” 

“There are challenges with financing and cooperation issues, so governments of higher income countries are supposed to support and assist and collaborate with low-income countries to be able to improve their capacities to respond to a pandemic,” Wenham said. 

“Also, other governance issues have come up during the pandemic of COVID, such as a lack of consideration of secondary impacts or pandemic policy.” 

Secondary impacts include such things as the effect of lockdowns on people’s physical and mental health and the financial implications that saw businesses affected worldwide. 

Zero draft

The ‘zero draft’ of the accord, released in 2023, states that “all lives have equal value, and that therefore equity should be a principle, an indicator and an outcome of pandemic prevention, preparedness and response” stressed Dr Viviana Munoz Tellez of the South Centre, an intergovernmental organization based in Geneva that helps developing countries promote their common interests in the international arena. 

Munoz Tellez noted the deep inequalities between member states, also exacerbated by profit-driven medical and pharmaceutical services – which the poor can often not afford.  Parts of the draft treaty text are already facing strong private sector opposition for clauses that some see as impinging too much on market forces, or threatening patent protections on drugs and treatment.  

For instance, one of the clauses of the ‘zero-draft’ of the treaty proposes that 20% of pandemic-related products, such as vaccines or equipment, should be allocated to WHO or other global health partners, which will then ensure equal distribution among member states.

“It is a global problem that we have – a number of countries that are not able to meet even basic capacities for pandemic prevention, and that response to the COVID pandemic, we saw, was highly inequitable,” Munoz Tellez told the subcommittee’s hearing. “In that sense, there has been this drive to say that part of the response for future pandemics is to have equity at the center.

“Private sector had the upper hand as we’ve generally seen overall in the R&D system right now. So we think this is also a very important opportunity for the pandemic treaty to improve the global system from research and development that responds better to public health needs, not just profit incentives.”

Despite the many challenges remaining, Ullmann is hopeful that all parties will be willing to compromise and “contribute to a just and efficacious global health policy.” 

“Failing cannot be an option as the next pandemic can be just around the corner, and no single government or institution can address this threat by itself,” the German lawmaker added in an email to Health Policy Watch, just after the briefing ended.  

“For sure, it is imperative to break the cycle of panic and neglect once and for all.”

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