World leaders back treaty idea for future pandemics

European Council President Charles Michel. (Credit: AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

More than 20 world leaders and the World Health Organization (WHO) have called for a new global treaty to help the world prepare for future pandemics.

In light of the Covid-19 crisis, world leaders throw their weight behind a proposal made by the European Council President Charles Michel to draw up an international settlement based on pandemic preparedness.

Covid-19 serves as “a stark and painful reminder that nobody is safe until everyone is safe”, the leaders stressed in an open letter that came after a G7 health ministers meeting on Monday and published in newspapers around the world.

Originally signed by the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and 21 other world leaders including from Rwanda, Norway, Spain, South Korea and Costa Rica, the letter proposes a treaty that seeks “a renewed collective commitment” mimicking a similar settlement forged after the Second World War.

The document declared that the current pandemic is “the biggest challenge to the global community since the 1940s”.

A treaty would provide a framework for immediate international cooperation in the face of future health crises, said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and European Council president Charles Michel in a briefing on Tuesday.

“The time to act is now,” Ghebreyesus said. “We must not allow the memories of this crisis to fade and go back to business as usual.”

Michel planted the idea of the treaty at the G20 summit last November and now totals signatures from 26 world leaders, alongside Ghebreyesus.

“At that time, following the devastation of two world wars, political leaders came together to forge the multilateral system. The aims were clear – to bring countries together, to dispel the temptations of isolationism and nationalism and to address the challenges that could only be achieved together in the spirit of solidarity and cooperation, namely peace, prosperity, health and security.

“Today we hold the same hope that, as we fight to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic together, we can build a more robust international health architecture that will protect future generations,” the letter said.

According to the WHO director, the initial reaction among the 194 WHO member states was “positive”, hoping to advance the initiative in May’s World Health Assembly.

Once developed the treaty will help tackle the gaps exposed by the coronavirus, strengthen implementation of international health regulations and provide a framework for cooperation in pandemic prevention and response.

“The treaty, which could be taken forward by the World Health Assembly, would be based on the WHO constitution including the principles of health for all and no discrimination,” Ghebreyesus noted, adding that states would be responsible for determining the content of the treaty and its ratification.

International regulations governing and implemented by the WHO already exist but can be discarded by countries with few to no consequences. Without any enforcement powers, WHO officials have little means to do so. However, Steven Solomon, WHO’s principal legal officer, said “specifics about enforcement will be up to member states to decide on”.

Still, even with the talks of greater “solidarity” and “societal commitment” there is no indication that any country will change its approach to the pandemic, as has been the case of the Covid-19 vaccine race, with some of the richer powers like the UK, the United States and the EU, over-ordering doses and issuing export bans to ensure that jabs go to their citizens first.

Neither the US, Russia or China joined in signing the statement.

Ghebreyesus however pleaded that “the world cannot afford to wait until the pandemic is over to start planning for the next one”.

Underlining this sentiment, last month Prime Minister Johnson petitioned fellow G7 leaders to back the proposal, emphasising the need for better global health data-sharing.

In June, the G7 made up of the world’s leading wealthy nations will gather at their annual summit in Cornwall to discuss “building back better” after the pandemic. To do so Johnson had asked richer nations to give surplus vaccine supplies to the WHO-led Covax equitable sharing scheme, whilst also offering financial support for economies hit hard by the pandemic.

Read also: UK to donate surplus Covid vaccines, urges G7 to follow suit.

The WHO director general called on wealthy countries to immediately donate ten million Covid-19 vaccines to allow immunisation campaigns to begin in all countries within the first 100 days of the year. However, no country has publicly delivered in this regard.

Ghebreyesus hopes that the treaty will address some of these issues by striking the “iron when it is hot”, underlining that “we are only as strong as the weakest link”.

Echoing his wish, Council president Michel added: “We must build a pandemic defense for future generations that extends far beyond today’s crisis. For this, we must translate the political will into concrete actions. No one is safe until everyone is safe.”