Pandemic Treaty Proposal to go before WHO Member States this Week


Geneva Global Health Hub panel debates a proposal for a global pandemic treaty – to be put before WHO member states next week.

The draft of a landmark resolution to establish a global “Pandemic Treaty” will be put to World Health Organization (WHO) member states this week in preparation for the World Health Assembly beginning 24 May,  Jaouad Mahjour, WHO Assistant Director-General Emergency Preparedness, told a panel in Geneva Monday.

The proposal for the Pandemic Treaty – which aims to tighten global rules around disease outbreak response so that countries react rapidly and more transparently, was first tabled by WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in January.  It has garnered the support of some 25 global leaders ranging from President of the European Council Charles Michel, to Germany’s Angela Merkel, Prime Minister JV Bainimarama of Fiji; UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The concept has met with resistance in some quarters, as well – notably the United States has not yet signed onto the idea. And some civil society voices have said that absent of political will, a treaty would not necessarily have more clout than existing International Health Regulations governing emergencies.

However, the countries now pushing for the treaty represent every region of the WHO, and range from superpowers to small island states, Mahjour told a panel convened by the Geneva Global Health Hub (G2H2), saying that the time for a treaty is ripe

The countries pushing for a “legally binding international framework” see this as the only way to deal with the magnitude and impact of the pandemic, he underlined. And there are some fundamental principles that have garnered wide agreement already:

“The first issue [is] that everybody agrees on is national preparedness. The world cannot be safe if only one country is not prepared,” said Mahjour. 

The second issue [is] mechanisms to ensure global preparedness, including supply chains that can provide all countries with goods and control measures; an early pandemic warning and alert system lead by WHO and including those involved in animal health; and accelerating research, innovation and development.

Not Everyone is Convinced

However, other panelists appearing at the session were less convinced that a treaty would add value to existing IHR rules, which are already binding on member states. 

Panel moderator Nicolette Dentico, director of global health at the Society for International Development as well as G2H2 co-president, asked why a new treaty would be effective when the COVID-19 pandemic had shown that member states “are not capable of actually abiding by those binding norms that have been already negotiated, established and agreed upon” in 2005, namely the International Health Regulations. 

“So why should we create another tool? Shouldn’t we work on the legally binding instrument that exists already instead of creating a new one?” she asked.

Treaty Needs to be Based on Human Rights

Meanwhile, an influential group of activists and academics writing in the BMJ on Monday, said that a pandemic treaty, if adopted, needs to be “based on human rights”.

“Those in charge of drafting the treaty must begin with a clear look at the grave abuses that have characterised the COVID-19 pandemic: authoritarian power grabs; continuing monopolies in diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines; failure to resource health systems; staggering setbacks for women; and an upsurge in violence, including covid-related hate crimes,” wrote Meg Davis, senior researcher at the Geneva Global Health Centre and 21 others.

“States have all-too-easily sidelined the international human rights framework under cover of emergency responses,” they added, calling for such a treaty to address a range of key issues including the right to health, the decriminalisation of infections, workers’ rights, and gender inequalities.

One panelist at Monday’s event, echoed those sentiments.  Ana María Suárez Franco, director of the food security network, FIAN International, based in Honduras, said that any pandemic treaty needs to be aligned with UN Human Rights Council principles, and make transnational companies legally accountable for their actions.

“A pandemic treaty has to be built from the bottom up. It needs to prevent corporate abuse,” said Franco.

To be effective, a treaty just be able to curb abuses that have occured in the current pandemic – for instance cases in which COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers had tried to force countries to sign exclusionary clauses that protected pharma companies from claims of adverse vaccine effects, and provided sovereign resources as payment guarantees – including natural resources and even embassy buildings – ahead of vaccine orders.

Concerns about the timing of the pandemic treaty negotiations and capacity of WHO to implement a vast new treaty project, are other issues that have come up, panelists said. 

Some critics have worried the “timing of these negotiations,” could divert attention, resources and personnel from addressing the current pandemic, said Priti Patnaik, editor of the Geneva Health Files newsletter.

“Some even raised the question of whether there is enough capacity within the WHO Secretariat to service the needs of treaty negotiations among member states,” she added, noting that according to European Union internal timelines, ‘the treaty has to be imposed next year”. 

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.