Rifts over Covid vaccines could derail new pandemic treaty

Germany dismisses concerns WHO will gain powers to order lockdowns or vaccinations

Aid workers in Sudan check a shipment of vaccines in October 2021. African countries complained of unequal access after rich countries hoarded shots against Covid-19. AFP
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Anger at rich countries for hoarding Covid-19 vaccines has spilt into divisions over tackling the next pandemic, potentially delaying a new treaty meant to stop history repeating itself.

Talks on the treaty are “highly polarised” and diplomats are doubtful whether a May 2024 deadline to present a draft to the World Health Organisation can be met, German officials said on Monday.

They brushed off concerns from vaccine and lockdown sceptics that a treaty would give sweeping powers to the WHO, or its director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to curb people’s freedoms.

A 32-page working draft of the treaty was circulated in February, aiming to address “gross inequities” and “serious shortcomings” that the coronavirus brought to light in global health. UN talks in New York this week are expected to produce a call to action to strengthen preparedness.

The WHO, which has reported almost seven million deaths from Covid-19, called an end in May to the state of global emergency it declared in 2020. The economic cost has been estimated in the trillions of dollars.

One key grievance at the height of the pandemic was “vaccine hoarding” by wealthy nations, which had immunised huge parts of their own populations before much of Africa had its hands on the shots.

Closing that gap in a future pandemic is “to a large degree the priority for the global south”, while Germany and others want to focus on preventing an outbreak in the first place, one German health official said.

“The negotiations are highly polarised,” the official told a parliamentary hearing in Berlin. "You can imagine in a geopolitically changing world that different blocs are being formed with different interests."

He said the vaccine talks were “accompanied by a big debate about patent protection” and whether it would have to be “watered down” to stop the next pandemic.

Former German chancellor Angela Merkel resisted calls in 2021 to loosen patent rules around Covid-19 vaccines, fearing it would discourage drugs research.

The German official said there were “differing or totally contrary assessments” on patents among the 194 states involved in negotiating the treaty.

Asked about the deadline of May 2024, he said: “At the moment all member states are still working on the fiction that it could be possible.

“Is it really realistic? You could have your doubts, because it is a big document and we haven’t even had the first draft yet. That is still to come. Then there will be various rounds of negotiation with a highly complex text.

“In that light, many experts are working on the basis that this deadline will not be met.”

The German hearing was triggered by a petition from a private citizen, Susanne Wilschrey, calling on the government not to sign the pandemic treaty.

After gathering the necessary 50,000 signatures to force MPs to hear her out, she raised concerns about vaccine safety and whether the WHO could order lockdowns or vaccinations – scenarios she was told were not on the cards.

Sabine Dittmar, a state secretary in Germany’s Health Ministry, said officials were trying to contain “fake news” about the treaty as she insisted the WHO would not gain such powers.

In the negotiated treaty “neither human rights nor fundamental rights will be infringed in any form”, Ms Dittmar said. She cited wording in the draft treaty that affirms the “principle of sovereignty” and respect for “national context”.

Updated: September 18, 2023, 2:45 PM