Deadline looms for disputed vaccine deal to tackle next global pandemic

New treaty faces resistance over fears of granting powers to the World Health Organisation

A new pandemic treaty will aim to learn the lessons from the Covid-19 outbreak that began in 2020. AP
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A global plan to tackle the next pandemic is entering eleventh-hour talks amid resistance to handing power to the World Health Organisation.

Negotiators have until a Friday deadline to agree on a 194-country pandemic treaty for approval at a WHO summit this month.

The aim is to learn from the Covid-19 crisis and be better prepared for the next outbreak.

But there is concern that health is slipping down the global agenda amid wars and economic strife.

“What’s good for the health of a nation is ultimately good for its economy,” former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard told a meeting of health advocates in London on Thursday.

The 23-page draft treaty includes some widely supported measures such as improving research and public awareness.

However, a crucial section that would give the WHO access to as much as 20 per cent of vaccines has sparked lively debate.

Countries would also commit to a “more equitable” sharing of medicines after vaccine hoarding blighted the response to the Covid-19 pandemic

Britain said this week it will “not agree to anything in this process which impacts our sovereignty”.

It will also not “put at risk” its own powers to swiftly approve vaccines, such as vaccines against Covid-19, Health Minister Nick Markham said.

The attorneys general of 21 US states also wrote to President Joe Biden raising concerns about an expanded WHO role.

They said the planned shake-up would “transform the WHO from an advisory, charitable organisation into the world’s governor of public health”.

The WHO and its boss Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said they are not seeking to dictate national policies.

They dismiss the suggestion that the WHO could impose lockdowns or compulsory vaccinations as conspiracy theories.

The African Union is pushing for more funding and for drug copyrights to be loosened during pandemics. African countries want assurances that data they provide to the WHO will not be used against them, for example, by imposing travel bans.

Negotiating teams are “working long hours to find common ground, in good faith, for the people of the world”, Dr Tedros said.

WHO officials have expressed concern that the desire to get things done during the years blighted by the pandemic is now receding. However, the upcoming US election is however seen as a reason to “reach a solution now”, with Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, having been highly critical of the WHO.

What is in the pandemic treaty?

The aim of the draft treaty is to “prevent, prepare for and respond to pandemics”.

It endorses a “one health” approach that links human health to that of plants, animals and the planet.

While the origin of Covid-19 remains unclear, one theory is that it spilt over to humans from animals, possibly bats.

Experts say climate change could worsen the spread of disease. Last year’s Cop28 talks in the UAE were the first to have a health-focused day of talks.

The world must now build on that “critical momentum”, Ms Gillard told Thursday’s “One Health” conference in London.

The treaty would recognise climate change as a “growing threat” and have countries tackle the causes of pandemics at the “human-animal-environment interface”.

It would ask governments to draw up prevention plans covering surveillance, hygiene, routine vaccination and the risk of spillover in labs. If outbreaks do occur, the treaty would bring in a new system modelled on rules for flu outbreaks. Rich countries would be told to promote the “transfer of technology and know-how” to the developing world.

They would also be asked to encourage vaccine manufacturers to do without royalties for the sake of poorer countries.

Article 12 would commit countries to a “fair and equitable allocation and distribution” of medicines. In the event of a pandemic, the WHO would have “real-time access” to 20 per cent of “pandemic-related health products”.

This would involve 10 per cent being donated to the WHO and another 10 per cent being sold at “affordable prices”.

More details on Article 12’s medicine-sharing system will be outlined by a 2026 deadline.

The WHO last year called an end to the state of global emergency it declared in 2020. It puts the total number of Covid-19 deaths at more than seven million.

“Covid is not gone but the legacy of the crisis of Covid needs to be that we have these strengthened systems,” said WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove.

Dr Tedros said they are “working long hours to find common ground, in good faith, for the people of the world”.

A final text could be presented to the World Health Assembly opening in Geneva on May 27.

If negotiators cannot reach a deal, they will have to tell the assembly they have failed and leave it to decide the next steps.

Updated: May 09, 2024, 2:14 PM