It's long past time for a global 'pandemic treaty'

The pandemic has occupied the minds of many world leaders, but common cause has brought too few of them together

epa09105550 US Secretary of State Antony Blinken holds a virtual meeting with UN General Assembly President Volkan Bozkir via videoconference from the State Department in Washington, DC, USA, 29 March 2021.  EPA/LEAH MILLIS / POOL
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At a time when international discord over the provision of coronavirus vaccines is increasing, the initiative launched this week for a global pandemic treaty must become a top priority for world leaders.

In a long-overdue gesture of international solidarity, 24 world leaders earlier this week published a joint article calling for a treaty that would enable politicians to provide a more effective global response in the event of another outbreak on the scale of the coronavirus pandemic.

The signatories to the article, which was published simultaneously in newspapers in Britain, France, Spain and Germany, included British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organisation. The most notable absentees were the US and China.

In the article, the leaders insist that a treaty akin to the settlement forged in the wake of the Second World War is needed to build cross-border cooperation ahead of the next international health crisis. They describe the coronavirus pandemic as “the biggest challenge to the global community since the 1940s”.

Pointing out that, after the devastation caused by two world wars, “political leaders came together to forge the multilateral system”, the leaders argue that a treaty on pandemics “should lead to more accountability and shared responsibility, transparency and cooperation within the international system and with its rules and norms”.

The fact that the article was signed by the leaders of Britain, France and Germany must be regarded as a welcome development following recent disputes between these key European powers over the production and distribution of vaccines.

Ever since pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer and AstraZeneca announced at the end of last year that they had developed an effective vaccine against Covid-19, tensions have been building as nations seek to acquire sufficient supplies of the vaccine to inoculate their populations against the deadly virus.

This is particularly the case in Europe, where Britain’s success in managing to vaccinate more than half the adult population – in excess of 30 million people – within the space of just two months has provoked bitter criticism from the EU, which has accused the UK of acquiring stocks of vaccine supplies at the expense of other European nations.

The EU’s unhappiness with the unqualified success of Britain’s vaccine roll-out, which has been made possible by the UK government’s decision last year to opt out of the EU’s own vaccine programme, has even resulted in Brussels threatening to limit supplies to Britain.

Nor are the ongoing tensions between Britain and the EU the only major source of tension in what have been dubbed “vaccine wars”. Poorer countries, particularly in Africa, claim they are being denied access to much-needed supplies because the major pharmaceutical companies that are manufacturing the vaccines prefer to do business with the wealthier Western democracies.

Indeed, the virus has now travelled to every continent and infected more than 100 million people globally just over a year since it was first declared a global health emergency.

As bodies like the WHO are constantly reminding us, the pandemic is a truly global phenomenon, and for the virus to be brought under control it is vital that everyone has access to effective vaccines. For there is little prospect of normal travel and trade arrangements being resumed if a pattern emerges whereby the wealthier nations are able to inoculate their populations while poorer nations remain the grip of the pandemic.

If any lesson is to be learnt from the experience of the 14 months since the virus was first identified in the Chinese province of Wuhan, it is that Covid-19 does not respect global borders. Consequently, so long as the virus exists in one country, it remains a threat to the rest of the world. As the new mantra regarding the global effort to eradicate the virus warns, “nobody is safe until everyone is safe”.

There is also an important economic argument for ensuring that every nation is able to vaccinate their populations, and not just the wealthy few.

A study commissioned by the International Chamber of Commerce has estimated that the global economy would lose $9.2 trillion if governments fail to ensure developing countries have access to Covid-19 vaccines.

The mounting awareness that as much attention needs to be paid to making sure poorer countries have the same level of access to vaccines as wealthier nations has already led to the creation of the WHO’s Covax programme. The aim of Covax, which is supported by Britain, European countries and the UAE, among others, is to coordinate purchases globally to ensure poorer countries are not priced out of the vaccine race.

epa09109888 People stand next to a COVAX sign at Noi Bai international airport in Hanoi, Vietnam, 01 April 2021. Vietnam has received the first batch of AstraZeneca/Vaxzevira vaccine through Covax initiative on 01 April 2021.  EPA/LUONG THAI LINH

But even though Covax aims to distribute more than 330 million vaccine doses to 145 countries in an initial round of distribution by June 2021, critics argue it is little more than an aid programme, and that it is failing to meet the needs of poorer countries because rich nations have already bought up nearly all of the early doses of the vaccines. The WHO has stated that 90 per cent of Covid-19 vaccines have been given in richer countries.

This is why a new pandemic treaty is so essential, as it would commit advanced economies to be more co-operative with less fortunate nations. A new treaty would also help to improve global co-operation on alert systems, data sharing and research which could prove vital to creating greater global resilience to future pandemics.

Certainly, if the acrimony and mistrust that has undermined the global response to the Covid-19 outbreak are to be avoided in future, then it is essential that an international framework is established that ensures proper global co-operation, which would be far more effective than the current policy of every nation acting in its own, selfish interests.

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National