Pandemic (Dis) Agreement Talks Limp into Extra Time
INB co-chairs Roland Driece and Precious Matsoso.

The fractious pandemic agreement talks – supposed to end with an agreement on Thursday (28 March) – have limped into extra time, with World Health Organization (WHO) member states resolving to hold an additional intergovernmental negotiating body (INB) meeting from 29 April to 10 May.

The World Health Assembly (WHA), which begins on 27 May, is supposed to adopt the agreement, intended to be a global guide on how to prevent, prepare for, and respond to, pandemics.

But the best case scenario is for the WHA to adopt an “instrument of essentials”, a bare-bones text that will be fleshed out over the next 12 to 24 months in advance of the proposed Conference of Parties, according to people close to the talks.

At the briefing at the end of Thursday’s talks, which started almost four hours later than scheduled, INB co-chair Roland Driece said that “there is no champagne”.

“We had long intensive discussions, but we have not succeeded in concluding this meeting,” added Driece. 

Consensus text

Instead, the INB Bureau would get a revised text to member states by no later than 18 April.

However, this text would be different from the previous one as it would aim to draw out consensus points rather than provide a shopping list of issues.

“That text will be building on the current one but also be different in focus and in level of detail, like we discussed before, but still trying to operationalise equity as much as we can,” said Driece. “We will build on the consensus already identified. Consensus is an important word.”

Extract from the INB 9 reportback

The INB drafting group will focus on “agreeing text”, and member states were also urged to “provide the Bureau with any convergence text resulting from informal consultations, as soon as possible”.

Meanwhile, when the INB resumes, there will be space for “structured informal meetings or working groups, as needed, to progress the work”.

At the start of the two-week negotiations, a number of member states had complained that their proposals and agreements reached in sub-groups had not been reflected in the Bureau’s draft text.

The focus on consensus appeared to cheer delegates, including Switzerland which said there was “a clear way forward”. Switzerland had refused to accept the draft text at the start of the talks.

Meanwhile, WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus implored delegates to draw on the “spirit of Geneva” to conclude the talks.

“Let the spirit of Geneva – the spirit of cooperation, mutual respect, and shared responsibility – guide your deliberations as you work towards finalising the agreement by the set deadline in May this year,” said a visibly tired Tedros.

“Together let us reaffirm our commitment to global health security, to solidarity in times of crisis and to a future where no one is left behind by operationalising equity with international law,” added Tedros.

WHO Director General Dr Tedros, flanked by WHO head of health emergencies, Dr Mike Ryan, at INB 9.

Putting on a brave face?

Finding consensus points may be hard in the coming days as many countries appear to have lost patience with one another, and with the INB Bureau and WHO Secretariat members who have been steering the process.

Countries across the political spectrum accused one another of refusing to make compromises, and criticised the Bureau for failing to provide direction.

However, the geopolitical reality is that some of the 194 member states are at war, while others are long-term trade enemies. This was never going to be easy, despite the recent trauma of COVID-19.

In the past two weeks, so much text has been added to the 31-page draft that the meeting started with that it had swollen to a completely unwieldy 100-page draft by Tuesday 26 March with multiple opposing clauses contained in brackets.

For example, by last Saturday (23 March), 50 countries had submitted at least one bracketed suggestion for Article 11, which deals with technology transfer, according to Knowledge Ecology International (KEI), which had two observers at the meeting.

However, the now notorious Article 12, which deals with pathogen access and benefit-sharing (PABS), remains the biggest obstacle.

The European Union believes that there is a place for intellectual property rights in PABS. However, this has been rejected by the Group on Equity – an alliance of 34 countries  – and the Africa region.

But the Group on Equity, which includes countries with large generic medicine producers such as India, Brazil and Indonesia, has also been accused of trying to secure advantages for these companies but taking a hard line on technology transfer.

Meanwhile, Colombia blamed the lack of progress in the past two weeks on “changing modalities, which were sometimes unclear, but also because we’re facing a highly complex document”.

“We support the Bureau in producing a streamline text and one which can achieve consensus but it will have to have substantive provisions which will take us beyond the status quo. The agreement that we will reach must be clearly based on the principles of equity and solidarity that tragic experiences that we live through during the COVID 19 pandemic.

Additional reporting by Elaine Ruth Fletcher

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