The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) on Monday convened its second “special session” in 73 years, with the goal of hammering out a global “pandemic treaty” to coordinate a worldwide response to future threats like the Wuhan coronavirus.
“The ongoing chaos of this pandemic only underlines why the world needs an ironclad global agreement to set the rules of the game for pandemic preparedness and response. The world has treaties to manage other threats. Surely countries can agree on the need for a binding pact on the threat of pandemics,” W.H.O. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last week.
A major topic of debate at the three-day W.H.O. session, and a likely sticking point for member nations with advanced economies, is the push to eliminate “vaccine inequity” by requiring nations that develop vaccines to provide more doses to impoverished countries.
The South China Morning Post (SCMP) on Sunday quoted various officials and observers who said new regulations are needed to ensure “fair” and “equitable” access to vaccines and to require more financial support from wealthy nations for virus detection and information sharing systems in developing countries.
“Major world powers like China, the U.S., Brazil, and Russia are highly unlikely to agree to strong WHO powers that would violate their sovereignty,” predicted faculty director Lawrence Gostin of the O’Neill Institute for National & Global Health Law at Georgetown University.
“If these major powers are not on board it will significantly weaken any future treaty. But I could see a ‘coalition of the willing’ signing on to a pandemic treaty, led by Europe,” Gostin ventured.
Travel bans are another sticking point. W.H.O. helped China undermine Western travel bans in the early stages of the pandemic, but now, nations around the world commonly impose such restrictions after each new variant or outbreak is reported – and, of course, China thinks nothing of imposing the most draconian restrictions of all.
The prospective global pandemic treaty would surely address travel restrictions and establish worldwide standards for imposing them, but there will be great resistance to such restrictions from countries that depend heavily upon foreign business travel and tourism.
On Sunday, for example, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said American and European bans against travel from Africa’s current outbreak region are “completely unjustified and unfairly discriminate against our country and our southern African sister countries.”
Another point of contention touched upon by the SCMP is China’s role in pandemic treaty negotiations. China insists the entire world accept its false narrative of bold and honest leadership in the coronavirus crisis and demands a halt to all investigations into the origin of the Chinese coronavirus.
Many W.H.O. member nations – hopefully including the United States – will be uncomfortable with giving Beijing the outsize seat at the pandemic treaty table it will demand, but it would seem impossible to craft any meaningful treaty that does not include China.
China will not agree to any regulations that would compel it to disclose information it prefers to keep secret and it is difficult to imagine any enforcement mechanism that would be effective against it. On the other hand, free nations worry pandemic information-sharing standards could jeopardize patents and expose valuable intellectual property to theft. At the very least, big pharmaceutical companies might be reluctant to pour billions into research that the W.H.O. could appropriate and ‘share” at its discretion.
W.H.O. member states reportedly “broke the deadlock” and “reached a tentative consensus to negotiate a future agreement on preventing pandemics” on Monday, as Reuters put it.
The result was a draft agreement for a global pandemic treaty, which should be finalized by May of 2024. The emergency of the Omicron variant of Chinese coronavirus in Africa reportedly inspired some holdout nations to reach a compromise on the global treaty.
“There is agreement on a text which for us is very satisfying. It also gives the Americans a way out, who are clearly joined up,” a European diplomat said on Monday, somewhat confusingly.