June 21, 2024

World health leaders will gather in Geneva on May 27 at the annual World Health Meeting, where a new agreement for countries to work together to prepare for, prevent and respond to – known as the “pandemic agreement” – will be at the top of the agenda.

It was first suggested by world leaders in early 2021, with a promise to avoid the mistakes of the Covid-19 pandemic next time.

The negotiation process, which involved nearly 200 countries, was challenging, and the plan was subject to what the World Health Organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called “a deluge of fake news, lies and conspiracy theories“.

Discussions are likely to run to the wire, and a finished text may not be ready by the meeting deadline. But those involved say it is a opportunity to make the world safer – and fairer – that humanity cannot afford to miss.

What is the idea behind the agreement?

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact worldwide. About 7 million deaths have been directly attributed to the virus, but indirect deaths are thought to be at least double that. The disruption caused by the virus has increased poverty and hunger. Health systems were no longer able to reliably provide the regular care people needed, and people living in poorer countries were often hardest hit.

The promise of the agreement was to make sure the world is better prepared for, and protected against, future pandemics – with equitable access to the tools needed to stop potential pandemic outbreaks in their tracks, as well as vaccines and treatments .

Announcing the plans, world leaders said a treaty would be “our legacy that protects our children and grandchildren” and pledged to be “guided by solidarity, fairness, transparency, inclusiveness and equity”.

Did it work out that way?

Many campaigners spoke out disappointment as details of the negotiations emerged. this month, Global Justice Now accused rich countries of “refusing to learn the lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic” and of blocking moves to accept the vested interests of big pharmaceutical companies.

Other questioned the need for a treaty at all, suggesting that it would not necessarily solve the problems encountered during the Covid pandemic, with countries likely to ignore any elements of a treaty they disagree with during a emergency not.

Dr Precious Matsoso of South Africa, the co-chair of the intergovernmental negotiating body overseeing the talks, said that progress was being made and promise “a meaningful, lasting agreement”.

And there is a feeling that it needs to be seen through. Michel Kazatchkine, a former member of the independent panel for pandemic preparedness and response, said: “It’s worth it because it provides a foundation. It is highly unlikely that it will answer all the challenges on the table – but I think a failure would be really terrible for the multilateral system, for the world of solidarity that we all want to see in the future, for WHO, for the United Nations system. So we have to work very hard until the last moment to get something.”

At what stage are negotiations?

This week, negotiators met almost every day from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm in an effort to complete negotiations in time for the meeting.

This follows several negotiation sessions that have seen draft texts presented and pulled apart. The latest publicly available draft points out that there was agreement in many areas, including on the need for countries to “strengthen science, public health and pandemic literacy in the population”. These include plans to establish a “Conference of the Parties (Cop)” to regularly review the agreement’s implementation, and promises of additional financial resources for lower-income countries.

But there are still areas of real bottlenecks, including the issue of “pathogen access and benefit sharing”. If poorer countries give richer nations – and their big pharmaceutical companies – access to materials and information about pathogens that could become pandemic, can those poorer countries be guaranteed access to any resulting vaccines and medicines? More recent drafts of the agreement suggested that such a system could be agreed in principle, but details were pushed back for later discussion.

It is not yet apparent whether the agreement will be a treaty – giving it greater force in international law – or a regulation.

Does the agreement take away countries’ sovereignty?

The agreement has been the subject of large amounts of misinformation and disinformation, including false claims that the agreement would give the WHO the power to impose lockdowns, or require countries to give away a fifth of their vaccines.

A WHO spokesperson answered to recent similar claims by the UK’s Nigel Farage by saying such claims are “false and have never been requested or suggested. This agreement will not, and cannot, grant sovereignty to the WHO.”

But in many countries the discussion has become politicized and concerns about sovereignty have hit mainstream politics. This month, the British Health Secretary, Andrew Stephenson, told the Commons that the current text was “not acceptable” to the British government, stressing that “protecting our sovereignty is a British red line”. In New Zealand too, negotiators were told to prioritize sovereignty.

The draft text of the agreement reaffirms “the principle of the sovereignty of states in addressing public health matters” and recognizes “the sovereign right of states over their biological resources”.

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