Global Leaders Call For New Treaty To Bolster Resilience Against Future Pandemics
Charles Michel, President of the European Council

After the COVID-19 pandemic exposed fundamental flaws in the global health architecture, a proposal for a new pandemic treaty that could strengthen the world’s capacity to contain the current pandemic and prepare for future ones, is gaining momentum.  

That was a key message at a World Health Organization (WHO) launch of an open letter by 25 global leaders calling for the world to negotiate such a treaty, featuring Charles Michel, President of the European Council, and two dozen other global leaders that are now backing the treaty initiative. 

Other signatories now include the United Kingdom’s Boris Johnson, Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron, along with the leaders of Indonesia, Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa. But China, the United States and Russia have yet to sign the call. 

“Today, we are calling for an international treaty on pandemics [to] foster a comprehensive approach to better predict, prevent and respond to pandemics,” said Michel, who has championed the treaty since late last year saying that the treaty would support the principle of “health for all”.

If ratified, the treaty will give the WHO the political clout to better carry out part of its mandate in terms of improved pandemic alert systems, better investments in coronavirus research, and sharing of crucial data on infectious pathogens, vaccine supply chains and vaccine formulas.

WHO’s director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus echoed Michel’s sentiments, saying: “The time to act is now”.

“The world cannot afford to wait until the pandemic is over to start planning for the next one. We cannot do things the way we have done them before and expect a different result. Without an internationally coordinated response…we remain vulnerable,” said Dr Tedros.

Pandemic Treaty Rooted In WHO Constitution 

The treaty “would be rooted in the constitution of the World Health Organisation, drawing in other relevant organizations key to this endeavour,” said the letter, also signed by the heads of: Albania, Chile, Costa Rica, Greece, Korea, Trinidad and Tobago, the Netherlands, Senegal, Spain, Norway, Serbia, Indonesia, and Ukraine.

“Existing global health instruments, especially the International Health Regulations, would underpin such a treaty, ensuring a firm and tested foundation on which we can build and improve.”

The Pandemic Treaty Will Strengthen WHO’s Mandate 

According to Michel, “Such a treaty [could] play an interesting role in order to make sure that we have more transparency on the supply chains [and] on the level of productions of vaccines and of tests; it will mean more rust and better cooperation.” 

Michel suggested that the treaty could also be used to expand vaccine production by facilitating  technology transfer in low- and middle-income countries, referring to the “third way” initially proposed by the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) new chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. 

“Certainly there is a debate in the international community about how to improve our vaccine production capacities to improve vaccine coverage, particularly in the African continent,” said Michel, adding that “we are closely following the debate at the WTO for the ‘third way’ voiced by Ngozi”.

 US and China Didn’t Sign Call – But Sent Positive ‘Comments’   

WHO’s director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

Although China and the US did not sign Tuesday’s op-ed, Dr Tedros said that that both countries had voiced “positive” comments during informal discussions with Member States – and that it was not necessarily an issue that the op-ed had only been signed by two dozen countries.

“It doesn’t need to be all 194 countries [to write an op-ed],” said Dr. Tedros. “I don’t want it to be seen as a problem, it wasn’t even a problem. When the discussion on the global pandemic treaty starts, all Member States will be represented.”

The Pandemic Treaty Will  Synergize With The International Health Regulations

Meanwhile, Mike Ryan, WHO’s Director of Emergency Programmes, emphasised that the treaty would “by no means” undermine the existing global framework that governs WHO countries’ behaviour during health emergencies – the legally binding International Health Regulations (IHRs). These regulations set out the mandates under which countries are obliged to report on disease outbreak risks, and share epidemic information, with WHO and other member states.

Rather, the pandemic treaty would generate the necessary political commitment to ensure that the IHRs are implemented; and bolster global pandemic preparedness and response by covering a broader set of issues than those covered by the IHRs, such as the sharing of crucial data.  

“The IHRs…is a really really good instrument,” said Ryan. “But in itself [it] is a piece of legislation that is without meaning unless countries are fully committed to its implementation.”

“IHR only works if we have trust, if we have transparency, if we have accountability. Such a treaty would provide that political framework in which we in public health can do our work much more effectively.”

“The proposed treaty will definitely bring strong political commitment and support for the IHR implementation,” added Jaouad Mahjour, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean region, who also spoke at Tuesday’s press conference.

In an initial response to the initiative, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) said that pharma partners should play a role in shaping such a treaty. The statement reflected IFPMA concerns over preserving what it described as the patent “incentive system” for developing new vaccines and medicines.

“The discussions around a possible International Pandemic Treaty need to take into account the important role played by the innovative biopharmaceutical industry and its supply chain in fighting the virus,” said the IFPMA statement.  

“It will be important to acknowledge the critical role played by the incentive system in developing tests, therapeutics, and vaccines to contain and defeat the coronavirus. We hope that the discussions on an International Pandemic Treaty will address enablers for future pandemic preparedness – the importance of incentives for future innovation, the immediate and unrestricted access to pathogens, and the importance of the free flow of goods and workforce during the pandemic – in addition to continuing the multi stakeholder approach undertaken in ACT-A and COVAX.”

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