WHO Proposes New “Pandemic Treaty” To Tighten Global Monitoring and Enforcement of Disease Outbreak Response 
WHO’s Executive Board meeting in 2017, which was face-to-face

Almost twenty years after a landmark WHO treaty was adopted to curb tobacco consumption, a new “pandemic treaty” could become a key tool to garner stronger political commitment from member states to better prevent, prepare and respond to infectious disease outbreaks, WHO’s Director General said on Wednesday.. 

The recommendation, initially proposed by the European Council’s president Charles Michel, was among a handful of reforms floated at this week’s meeting of WHO’s Executive Board, ranging from more sustainable financing mechanisms to a new Swiss “Biohub” repository to share new samples of infectious pathogens as they evolve. 

“I think a Pandemic Treaty is the best thing that we can do that can bring the political commitment of member states.”  Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Organization’s director-general, told member states on Wednesday at the Executive Board’s meeting. 

“Of course, it will be up to the member states to deliberate on this and decide, but from the WHO  side, we believe that this is a very, very good idea. It will give the IHR [International Health Regulations] the political dimension.”

Ever since the pandemic began, Member States have continued to flout the WHO’s recommendations – mainly because they lack the incentives to do so under the current International Health Regulations (IHRs), noted the WHO’s former legal counsel Gian Luca Burci last April at the outset of the pandemic. 

But if member states quickly set up a working group to push the treaty forward, they could present a draft resolution at the next World Health Assembly this May and thus prop up the  Organization at an urgent time, said Dr Tedros.

He warned, however, that without the “full cooperation” of member states, “good ideas can’t happen”.

“At the end of the day, it’s your treaty, and you have to deliver it in a working group to decide on how to handle it.”

Swiss-Based Biohub To Share Samples of Infectious Pathogens 

Meanwhile, Dr. Tedros called on countries to share samples of new and threatening pathogens through the new Swiss-based “biohub” in a voluntary initiative that seems more timely than ever, given the emergence of new variants with potential to undermine the performance of diagnostic tests or even vaccines.

“Sharing of genetic material has been very contentious and very difficult,” said Dr. Tedros, referring to previous attempts to share pathogen samples through the Nagoya Protocol. “I call on all member states to really join this voluntary system, because it can help us in the emergency preparedness and response.”

Three countries have already signed up to share SARS-CoV-2 samples through the Swiss-based Biohub, including Italy, South Africa, and Thailand, Dr. Tedros said earlier this week. 

If an initial Biohub pilot bears fruits in upcoming weeks, WHO will scale it up, added WHO’s director of the Global Infectious Hazard Preparedness department Sylvie Briand, noting that the Organization is still exploring where the samples will be stored. 

It is still unclear, however, what benefits member states will reap through the Biohub, and to what extent they will be able to access the available data, though a “parallel discussion” with member states will help clarify these concerns, with more details at the next WHA in May, she added.  

Concise WHO Guidance on Non-Pharma Measures  

As policymakers come to realize that herd immunity from vaccines will take a long time to develop, countries need to have a better understanding of how and when to implement  “non-pharmaceutical interventions” like physical distancing, mask wearing or lockdowns, said  Norway’s delegate at the EB.

“We suggest that WHO be mandated to develop a programme for generating knowledge on non pharmaceutical interventions, and how they can be effectively applied,” she said. “We welcome…this solution to strengthen WHO’s work in health emergencies.”

Her comment comes just a day after a study found that a 10% increase in mask-wearing tripled a community’s capacity to keep the virus reproductive rate (R-value) below 1, an important indicator that transmission is slowing. The study, which was published in The Lancet, was based on online self-reports from almost 400,000 Americans aged thirteen years and older. 

“If we don’t understand how those tools work, or when they’re not working, then the tool becomes potentially a banana skin for us in terms of our relationships with our community,” agreed WHO’s head of emergencies Mike Ryan, in response. 

“We do need to work to understand how to implement, how to measure them, how to monitor them, they’re important tools.”

Member States Ask WHO To Explore Modalilties Of “Vaccine Passports” – WHO Offers No Response  

 Multiple delegates have also asked WHO to provide further guidance and clarification about the implementation of COVID-19 “vaccine passports”.  The rules around the implementation of such passports have become a flashpoint of discussion in the travel industry and also in many countries with vaccine campaigns now underway – with some voices saying that a vaccine accreditation would be useful in reopening the gates of international travel – while others saying that they would be discriminatory. 

In a statement last week, WHO’s COVID Emergency Committee said that a discussion on vaccine passports would be premature – since vaccine programmes have only just now gotten underway. 

On Wednesday, however, Canada’s delegate said that WHO should play more of a leading role in the vaccine passport debate, saying that “proof of vaccination for international travel will be important. And we look forward to WHO for leadership in this issue.“

Singapore also raised the issue on Tuesday, saying, “while we are still learning about whether the vaccines provide sterilizing immunity, and the duration of vaccine induced immunity, one of the key IHR challenges in the context of COVID-19 would be the global need to verify the vaccination status of travelers.

“In this regard, an international authentication mechanism may be useful to aid the resumption of global trade and travel,” added the delegate, Janil Puthucheary, senior minister of state in  Singapore’s Ministry of Health. 

WHO leadership at the meeting have so far not responded to member state remarks about the vaccine passport issue, and overall, a mechanism for an internationally recognized COVID vaccine certification so far appears to be one that WHO is reluctant to take up – in line with the Organization’s historic reluctance to support or provide guidance on COVID-related travel restrictions:  

“The introduction of requirements for vaccine passports is not just difficult,” warned PAHO’s incident manager Sylvain Aldighieri in a press briefing earlier this month. 

“It would show a false sense of security and, ultimately, it would have the potential to trigger the relaxation and adherence to personal protective measures, social distancing measures, with possibly dramatic consequences on the dynamic of the transmission of the virus, as well as widening the inequities.”

Image Credits: WHO, WHO.

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