WHO agrees to start drafting global pact to prevent future pandemics

European Council President Charles Michel gives a speech via a video conference during a special session of World Health Assembly at the European Council building in Brussels, Belgium, 29 November 2021. (Keystone/EPA/Francois Walschaerts/Pool)

WHO member states have adopted a resolution to start drafting a global convention on how to prevent and tackle the next pandemic.

The World Health Organization (WHO) agreed on Wednesday to begin negotiations on a global pact to prevent and control future pandemics as fears rise over the spread of the new Omicron coronavirus variant.

An agreement will address some of the key issues laid bare by Covid-19 to bolster measures against pandemics, covering data sharing between countries and genome sequencing of new viruses to equitable distribution of vaccines and drugs.

The pact, which follows months of negotiations between WHO member states, is expected to be ready in May 2024.

“The adoption of this decision is cause for celebration and a cause for hope that we all need,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the World Health Assembly (WHA) meeting in Geneva on Wednesday.

“Of course there is still a long road ahead. There are still differences of opinion about what a new accord could or should contain,” he said, calling for continued cooperation between member states.

In the meantime, Tedros also urged countries to continue to abide by the WHO's 2005 International Health Regulations (IHR) – the existing instrument to govern and prevent pandemics – while the accord is being negotiated.

The decision was adopted by consensus at the three-day special session which brought together the WHO's 194 member states both in-person and online.

“The text before us is the product of extensive discussions, of frank exchanges and of compromises,” said Australia's ambassador Sally Mansfield, who co-chaired the working group that co-sponsored the final text.

The European Union and around 70 other countries pushed for an agreement on a legally binding treaty, but countries including Brazil, India and the United States were reluctant to commit.

“We call for an ambitious process in developing this treaty - let us all demonstrate our multilateral commitment and engagement towards a binding instrument,” ambassador Lotte Knudsen, head of the EU delegation to the UN in Geneva, said on Wednesday.

The US welcomed the agreement. “This momentous step represents our collective responsibility to work together to advance health security and to make the global health system stronger and more responsive,” the US mission in Geneva said in a statement.

Russia and China were among nations reluctant to commit to a treaty. The WHO has said in the past that China has still not shared some of its early data that could help identify the origins of the virus, and has repeatedly stalled the organisation's investigations in the country.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a light on the many flaws in the global system to protect people from pandemics: the most vulnerable people going without vaccines; health workers without needed equipment to perform their life-saving work; and 'me-first' approaches that stymie the global solidarity needed to deal with a global threat,” said Tedros following the decision.

“But at the same time, we have seen inspiring demonstrations of scientific and political collaboration, from the rapid development of vaccines to today's commitment by countries to negotiate a global accord that will help to keep future generations safer from the impacts of pandemics,” he added.