COVID-19 has exposed the fragility of existing pandemic preparedness arrangements governed largely, until now, via international health regulations (IHR) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). Various panels and working groups have mulled over the deficiencies in response and suggested ways to redress gaps for future pandemics. A special session of the World Health Assembly (WHA) is due to begin to discuss the way forward on a proposed international pandemic treaty as a framework for tackling future pandemics.
In a zero draft prepared by the working group of six countries, a treaty is proposed to be built on a broad-church basis, accommodating divergent positions of the developed and developing world. The zero draft approved this month goes some way in accommodating the concerns of the Global South. While endorsing the need for a new pandemic treaty, the draft also emphasises the importance of strengthening IHR which remain the principal governing instrument for a global pandemic. Yet the treaty falls short when it comes to animal-human crossover as in Covid’s case.
The report further proposes setting up an intergovernmental body to be put in charge of developing a WHO convention along the lines of the UN Convention on Tobacco Control. The report also calls on countries to lend support to further strengthen and amending IHR to make them workable for future epidemics. There is growing recognition that the new treaty is the best available way to tackle future pandemics. However, experts predict that the intergovernmental route will be prolonged and fragmentary. The working group will convene again in January 2022 after the special session of the WHA to draft another report for the executive board of the WHO.
The discussion on an international pandemic treaty gathered momentum in the wake of the publication of a report by the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response set up to review the Covid-19 response. The report noted that the pandemic could have been contained had prompt and globally coordinated measures been instituted in time. The response was delayed and a wait-and-see attitude prevailed. The report further recommended prompt action to make the vaccine widely available to the Global South as well as ensuring easy and affordable access to Covid treatment and diagnostics.
A new pandemic treaty refuses to be born.
The EU and WHO too called for a new global pandemic treaty and for strengthening the WHO role in future pandemic investigations and response. However, the proposal was cold-shouldered by China and Russia. Not far behind was the US which argued that strengthened and revamped IHR offered a better way forward than a new pandemic treaty. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken argued this position in the pages of an influential magazine. Lately, however, there are signs of the US back-pedalling on an only IHR route and leaning more towards the pandemic treaty as the wider and all-encompassing option.
However, the proposed design of the new treaty is replete with contradictory and divergent impulses. While the focus of the EU proposal is on beefing up the role of the WHO in any future pandemic, a majority of the developing world is chiefly concerned with making sure that the supply of vaccines, treatments and personal protective equipment on an equitable basis during future pandemics remains at the centre of the new pandemic treaty. The latter has also argued that the Covid response has highlighted distributional inequities in the supply of global health-related goods. These tensions lie at the heart of the fraught negations permeating the pandemic treaty.
Many civil society activists from the Global South see the treaty as a ploy to divert attention from the TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) waiver debate that seeks to make vaccine technology and treatments available to the developing countries by waiving intellectual property protection for the duration of the pandemic. The waiver proposal, though backed by the US and most of the Global South, is being resisted by the EU and UK. The fact that the sponsor of the treaty also happens to be the EU underscores this justly held view.
Like the rest of the Global South, the issue of vaccine equity, access to technology, treatment and diagnostics remain key concerns for a country like Pakistan. These concerns should be at the core of the treaty to prevent a repeat of the global mayhem wrought by pandemics such as Covid-19. More importantly, the new treaty should be driven by public health rather than security concerns. Here too, countries of the South, including Pakistan, should ensure that a fine balance is struck between these two positions.
The writer is author of Patient Pakistan: Reforming and Fixing Healthcare for All in the 21 Century.
Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2021