Pandemic Negotiations: ‘Hopeful and Scary Times’
Moderator Sylvie Briand, INB co-chir Precious Matsoso, Ethiopia’s Ambassador Tsegab Kebebew Daka and Australia’s Ambassador Amanda Gorely

“This is probably the most hopeful time in my professional life and the scariest time,” Dr Mike Ryan, the World Health Organization (WHO) Deputy Director General and head of Health Emergencies, told a high-level Geneva audience on Wednesday.

“Hopeful” because there is the possibility of reaching a global agreement on how to tackle future pandemics and “scary” because the world “is tearing itself apart”, Ryan explained at on pandemic agreement negotiations, convened by the Geneva Graduate Institute’s Global Health Centre, the Global Preparedness and Monitoring Board (GPMB) and Pandemic Action Network (PAN).

“What we need is a foundational agreement,” added Ryan, calling on the 194 WHO member states and multilateral organisations to “commit to a collective security arrangement where we can build the future on the strongest foundations; where there are concrete commitments to sharing [and] concrete commitments to equity”.

“Let us choose to put our communities and our populations first, and at least deal with one issue for which we have the capability, the science, the technology, but lack the will so far to put in place,” Ryan appealed to the audience, which included key players in the pandemic agreement negotiations and the process to update the International Health Regulations (IHR).

Dr Mike Ryan, WHO Deputy Director General, delivers the keynote address

‘Negotiators need to be empowered’

Ambassador Amanda Gorely, Australia’s representative to the UN in Geneva, told the meeting: “It was always our expectation that these intensive negotiations would result in a high level agreement on which we could build and that its adoption would not be the end of the process, but the beginning.”

“We have been working closely with our Ethiopian colleagues on Article 12 negotiations, which have been amongst the most intractable in terms of divergent positions,” she added.

“So we really appreciate and acknowledge the fact that the Bureau has been working very hard and indeed circulated a revised text [on Tuesday] night, which we’re all now trying to digest and prepare to engage on in the next session.”

While Australia has generally aligned itself with the Western bloc of countries, it has also played a useful role in trying to resolve differences between the key power blocs, according to insiders.

“Negotiators, who have been listening carefully to each other for many, many months, and know where common ground can be found, need to be empowered to make the agreement that we need to see happen,” said Gorely.

‘Differences are not huge’

Ethiopia’s Ambassador to Geneva, Tsegab Kebebew Daka told the same event that “the differences in the text are not huge”.

“They are mainly differences of ideas and they’re not that many. So we can come to an agreement,” said Daka, a key negotiator for the Africa group.

Like Gorely, he appealed for high-level political engagement to give negotiators “the power and flexibility they need to make compromises and find consensus”. 

“We are at a stage where we need to make decisions. We need to open direct lines of communication and provide political backing to negotiators”

While Daka acknowledged that there were still sticking points, he appealed to member states to take a “holistic view on the entire pandemic agreement” rather than dwelling on “specific articles where we have differences”.

“We need to go back to the mandate. We want to address the issue of equity and we need to have that holistic view. We need to be clear on the individual and collective responsibilities and expectations.”

Letting member states ‘hold the pen’

Meanwhile INB co-chair Precious Matsoso joked that the lessons she had learnt during the process was “how not to do things”.

“I’ll be in trouble for this, my Bureau members are going to kill me but I’ll say it anyway. Sometimes as the Bureau, we think that we must hold the pen but it’s important to sometimes allow the member states to hold the pen,” said Matsoso.

“Let them agree amongst themselves on how to do it. It is that balance because we also, as a Bureau, are looking at the timeline;, we want to meet the deadline.

“Secondly, I’ve also established that sometimes member states avoid talking to each other they avoid negotiating amongst themselves and negotiate through the Bureau. The more they talk amongst themselves, the more they engage each other, the better because that text will be owned by them.”

IHR amendments make progress

PAN executive director Eloise Todd, EU negotiator Americo Beviglia Zampetti and Bangladesh’s Shanchita Haque, with Dr Ashley Bloomfield, co-chair on the WGIHR, projected behind them.

The Working Group on Amendments to the IHR had to shift through 300 proposed amendments to the global rules that govern public health emergencies of international concern, said co-chair Dr Ashley Bloomfield.

Ryan described some of the proposed amendments as “significant improvements” that would have an immediate effect on surveillance and response. 

However, European Union’s negotiator, Minister Counsellor Americo Beviglia Zampetti said the EU would have liked some of the IHR improvements “to be a little bit more ambitious, but nonetheless we are very satisfied with the way the work has been conducted”.

A closing window of opportunity

Professor Suerie Moon, co-director of the Global Health Centre, warned that there was a “closing window of opportunity” to reach a meaningful deal on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response that was more effective and equitable than the status quo during COVID-19. 

“The concept of a political window of opportunity is real. It’s not just an abstract theory,” said Moon. “These windows open, often in response to a crisis, and they close. If you look at the headlines of the news this morning, it’s easy to see why our window of opportunity might be closing. We have in the headlines war, famine, humanitarian catastrophe, climate disasters, inflation, political extremism, and elections, to name just a few. And this is what’s on the minds of heads of state rather than pandemics today.”

Moon added that a meaningful pandemic agreement “cannot be achieved without international cooperation”.

”I would bet every single one of us, both here in the room and online, was deeply and personally affected by the pandemic. And I hope that we as a global community can mobilise the political momentum needed to support our hardworking diplomatic negotiators, many of whom have also joined us today, our hard working Bureau, our hard working Secretariat, all of whom are indeed working very, very hard night and day to close a meaningful deal. “

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