US Optimistic About Pandemic Treaty Talks, But Timeline Remains Uncertain
US Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra

GENEVA – The United States believes a “good deal” is within reach on the pandemic agreement, with parties “close to consensus,” Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Xavier Becerra told reporters at the US Mission in Geneva on Wednesday.

“There is a clear consensus that we can’t let the status quo be upon us if another pandemic comes,” Becerra said, adding that the US believes it has given the talks their “best shot”. “We’re so optimistic because everyone gets it. It’s not just our health. It’s our economies. It’s our security that’s at stake.”

Despite some disagreements, “the contours of the agreement are in place,” Becerra said, expressing optimism that countries would leave this week’s World Health Assembly (WHA) with “something” to show that the World Health Organization (WHO) is ready for the next pandemic.

Spain’s Dr Fernando Simón (centre), flanked by Thiru Balasubramaniam of Knowledge Ecology International (left) and Dr YuanQiong Hu (right) of Médecins Sans Frontières.

Key Spanish negotiator Dr Fernando Simón echoed the sentiment, stating that differences between countries are not significant.

“Faster is the best. There is no perfect treaty, but if we don’t get this pandemic agreement, we risk getting a trade agreement, not a public health agreement,” Simón said at a meeting at the Médecins Sans Frontières headquarters.

One or two-year delay?

However, US Ambassador Pamela Hamamoto cautioned WHA delegates on Tuesday that the pandemic agreement might take one or two years to conclude, citing “fundamental differences” on “complex technical issues that require extensive deliberation and carefully crafted workable solutions.”

US Ambassador Pamela Hamamoto at WHA77

The 47 African member states of the WHO are pushing for the pandemic agreement to be concluded and presented to a special WHA by year’s end.

The upcoming US presidential election on November 5 could impact the negotiations, particularly given the high level of disinformation surrounding the pandemic agreement in the US.

Should Donald Trump win the US election, his administration is likely to scupper the pandemic agreement – and possibly pull out of the WHO altogether.

‘We shouldn’t leave Geneva with nothing’

But Becerra and Loyce Pace, HHS Assistant Secretary for Global Affairs, were both upbeat, intimating that it was now up to other parties to pick up the pen and sign the deal. 

“If we can get this across the finish line, I think what we show – with the pandemic accord and improved International Health Regulations – that we’re ready to take on these challenges so that never again will we suffer a pandemic [like COVID-19],” said Becerra.

Loyce Pace, US HHS Assistant Secretary for Global Affairs

“Frankly, we shouldn’t be leaving Geneva and going home with nothing, not after all that’s been done,” Pace said. “The world needs us to update our global health security architecture. The world needs world leaders and public health leaders to truly commit to what’s required.”

The US is also pushing hard for the amendments to the International Health Regulations (IHR) to be adopted this week. The IHR governs countries’ conduct during “public health emergencies of international concern”.

“We don’t know how long it’s going to be before we get another type of COVID-kind of tragedy. We don’t want to wait,” Becerra said. “We made it unambiguous and clear what we could offer and also what we could accept.

“The elements of a big deal are already on the table. And that’s why, again, we feel optimistic, because those are pretty good deals. It’s just a matter of now finally making sure everybody says: ‘We’re ready to sign on the dotted line’,” he added.

A new WHA drafting committee met most of Wednesday to work out a process for adopting both measures and may report back to the WHA as early as Thursday.

Some African countries have linked their support for the IHR amendments this week to their timetable for the pandemic agreement. But this position is not monolithic. Botswana, for example, supports the IHR’s adoption this week.

Russia indicated on Tuesday that it opposed the adoption of the IHR this week, so the issue might go to a vote.

Additional reporting by Elaine Fletcher. 

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