Pandemic Agreement Talks Stall as Delegates Disagree on Detail
Tired INB co-chairs Roland Driece and Precious Matsoso brief stakeholders.

Negotiations for a pandemic agreement currently underway in Geneva have made  little progress over the past four days, with member states still reading the current revised draft in plenary, and there is now talk of a further meeting in late April.

Co-chairs of the process believe that the best way forward is for member states with opposing views on particular clauses to negotiate directly with one another in smaller groups.

This emerged at a 90-minute briefing given to civil society organisations on Thursday night.

Roland Driece, co-chair of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) intergovernmental negotiating body (INB), told the briefing that the current revised draft had “not been matured” enough for a new draft to be issued, and could not predict when a new version would be available.

“We still have the stage of many countries adding textual suggestions to the text,” said Driece.

His co-chair counterpart, Precious Matsoso, said that the INB has dealt with the section on “objectives and principles”, and completed “a first reading” of articles 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10. 

Despite Ramadan, delegates had been meeting for additional evening sessions from 8pm-10pm and would be meeting for the whole of Saturday, she noted. The talks are scheduled to end next Thursday (28th March) but the process is very unlikely to have yielded an agreement by then.

Very few delegates were in the negotiating room at the WHO headquarters for the briefing, as two regions – most likely Africa and the European Union – were holding an informal discussion, while others were attending a briefing, said Matsoso. 

Both she and Driece expressed support for such meetings to find consensus.

Driece said there were a number of challenges, the biggest being the “time-consuming” nature of talks.

“Basically, I think these texts are progressing. But a lot of these ideas we already had on the table for a long time,” he said.

“Procedurally, the biggest challenge is, of course, the fact that you are here with a lot of countries. So if 50 of them speak out for three minutes, you can imagine that it takes a long time just to go around for one article”.

Devil in the detail

Content-wise, “the deeper you go into the details, the more difficult it is to agree”, said Driece. For example, while there was broad agreement on the need for technology transfer, discussing how this could be achieved touched on intellectual property – a point of disagreement. 

Increasing countries’ capacity to prevent pandemics had come up against poorer countries’ lack of resources to do so.

The contentious pathogen access and benefit-sharing (PABS) system is currently being discussed. The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) proposing a way forward this week that involves manufacturers getting access to information about pathogens with pandemic potential in exchange for their support for certain equity-related measures.

IFPMA Director General Thomas Cueni at the CSO briefing

IFPMA Director-General Thomas Cueni, who attended the briefing, articulated the pharma industries’ proposal: “We do want a pandemic accord and companies are willing to accept mandatory commitments to delivering equitable access to essential countermeasures provided the system is workable.

“These commitments do include allocation of a percentage of real-time production of relevant therapeutics or vaccines after the pandemic is declared on the basis of a public health risk needs and demand,” said Cueni, who addressed the INB directly for the first time.

“It can include part portion expected as a donation, don’t exclude that, and part on the basis of equity based tiered pricing,” said Cueni, adding that manufacturers from the Global North and South were “fully aligned” on their position.

“We urge you to develop a flexible and agile approach to equitable access [to pathogen information], which will induce a critical mass of companies to sign up,” said Cueni.

“Coercion sadly will not work. You need to induce them, and I’m confident that it can be done,” he added, appealing for the industry to be included in a partnership to govern the proposed PABS system.

“Time is running short. So we really call for realism and pragmatism to find an agreement. We believe that the recently submitted proposal by the European Union, we don’t like it, but we do believe it does includes quite a number of elements which could make a workable system,” he concluded.

Civil society organisations raised more questions that answers during the session – most of which went unanswered by the co-chairs, who sounded tired and out of ideas.

Oxfam’s Mogha Kamal-Yanni at the INB briefing.

Pressure mounts on negotiators 

Country delegates negotiating the pandemic agreement are facing increasing pressure from a number of quarters.

Representatives from civil society organisations are camped on the doorstep of the INB  meeting room, along with journalists.

At each INB open session, a consistent set of civil society stakeholders speak and while they all represent different constituencies, they convey a similar complaint: when a pandemic strikes, they will be needed – so why aren’t they allowed in the room?

Meanwhile, a series of global campaigning efforts have converged this week. A powerful group of over 100 global leaders, including former presidents and prime ministers, sent the negotiators an open letter on Wednesday reminding them of their  “opportunity to safeguard the world” and urging progress.

The former world leaders reminded INB members of the seven million dead (officially) and the $2 trillion wiped from the world economy.

“Only a strong global pact on pandemics can protect future generations from a repeat of the COVID-19 crisis, which led to millions of deaths and caused widespread social and economic devastation, owing not least to insufficient international collaboration,” the leaders write in their joint letter. 

Signatories include former UN General Secretary Ban-ki Moon, former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, former UK Prime Ministers Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, former Malawi President Joyce Banda, and former Peru President Franciso Sagasti.

Earlier in the week, religious leaders also sent a letter to negotiators, urging that they prioritise equity.

“A bitterly inequitable vaccine distribution protected people in the Global North but left the world’s poorest to face COVID-19 unprotected for too long. Countless lives were lost unnecessarily as a result. As world leaders/negotiators, you have a moral duty to ensure that this never happens again,” they noted.

Young leaders has campaigned online in support of an equitable agreement, while Global Citizen has a petition urging world leaders to  “find a common ground” to achieve a strong agreement.

On Tuesday, 12 prominent U.S. political leaders led by Senator Bernie Sanders published a letter pressuring the US to “support strong, binding equitable access standards.”

Then there are those outside the tent, spewing out misinformation that the agreement will enable the WHO to impose global lockdowns who hope that the talks will fail – amongst them, anti-vaxxers, staunch nationalists and extreme libertarians.

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