Global Leaders Struggle to Finalize Pandemic Treaty Amidst Political Discord

FILE PHOTO: World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference organized by Geneva Association of United Nations Correspondents (ACANU) amid the COVID-19 outbreak, caused by the novel coronavirus, at the WHO headquarters in Geneva Switzerland July 3, 2020. Fabrice Coffrini/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

United States: Following the seismic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which induced unprecedented lockdown measures, destabilized economies, and claimed countless lives, leaders within the World Health Organization and across the globe made solemn pledges to improve future responses. However, even now, years later, nations grapple with formulating a cohesive strategy for addressing potential future global outbreaks.

The impending conclusion of a ninth and final round of deliberations involving governmental bodies, advocacy organizations, and other stakeholders regarding a “pandemic treaty” is scheduled for this Friday. The primary objective of this treaty is to outline directives for the prevention of future pandemics and the equitable distribution of limited resources among the WHO’s 194 member states. Nevertheless, experts caution that there are minimal repercussions for nations that fail to adhere to these directives, according to the reports published by AP. 

In 2021, the member states of the WHO tasked the United Nations health agency with facilitating discussions for a pandemic accord. Diplomats have invested extensive hours in recent weeks to formulate a preliminary document in anticipation of its prospective endorsement at the WHO’s annual assembly later this month. However, significant discord threatens to undermine these efforts.

Recent correspondence from Republican senators in the United States to the Biden administration criticized the draft treaty for its focus on contentious issues such as the infringement of intellectual property rights and the augmentation of the WHO’s authority. They urged President Biden not to endorse the agreement.

The Department of Health in the United Kingdom stipulated that it would only lend its support to the treaty if it unequivocally served the national interests of the UK and respected its sovereignty, as Associated Press reported. 

Moreover, many developing nations assert that it is unjust for them to be expected to contribute virus samples for vaccine and treatment development while subsequently lacking the means to procure them.

“This pursuit of a pandemic treaty is idealistic, yet it fails to acknowledge political realities,” remarked Sara Davies, a professor specializing in international relations at Griffith University in Australia.

For instance, the treaty endeavors to address the glaring disparities in access to COVID-19 vaccines between affluent and impoverished nations, a situation WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus labeled as “a catastrophic moral failing.”

The draft proposes that the WHO receive a 20% share of the production of pandemic-related commodities such as tests, treatments, and vaccines and urges nations to disclose their agreements with private entities.

“There exists no mechanism within the WHO to exert significant pressure on nations that opt not to adhere to the treaty,” Davies noted.

Adam Kamradt-Scott, a global health expert affiliated with Harvard University, likened the prospective pandemic treaty to global climate agreements, suggesting that it would, at the very least, establish a new platform for nations to hold each other accountable and necessitate governments to justify their actions.

The treaty “does not entail dictating to national governments what they can or cannot do,” asserted Roland Driece, co-chair of the WHO’s negotiating committee for the treaty, AP News mentioned. 

While there are legally binding obligations outlined in the International Health Regulations, including the prompt reporting of emergent outbreaks, these have been repeatedly disregarded, as evidenced by instances such as African nations during Ebola outbreaks and China in the initial stages of the COVID-19 crisis.

Suerie Moon, co-director of the Global Health Center at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, emphasized the importance of delineating the expected role of the WHO during a pandemic and devising strategies to contain outbreaks before they escalate into global crises.

“Failing to capitalize on this narrowing window of opportunity would leave us as vulnerable as we were in 2019,” she cautioned.

Certain nations appear to be taking unilateral action to ensure cooperation from others in future pandemics. Last month, the Biden administration announced its intention to assist 50 countries in responding to new outbreaks and preventing global dissemination, thereby positioning the country to leverage critical information or resources if necessary.

Yuanqiong Hu, a senior legal and policy advisor at Médecins Sans Frontières, acknowledged the uncertainty surrounding the specifics of the next pandemic but expressed hope that addressing the glaring deficiencies exposed by COVID-19 might yield improvements.

“We will largely rely on nations to improve their performance,” she remarked. “This is cause for concern.”

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