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The global idea of “WHO’s first-ever pandemic treaty”

  • Category
    International Relations
  • Published
    25th Apr, 2022

Context

Members of the World Health Organisation (WHO) holding the first round of negotiations towards creating the ‘first-ever pandemic treaty’.

Background

  • World Health Assembly had in December 2021 agreed to start a global process to draft the pandemic treaty. 

The World Health Assembly (WHA) is the forum through which the World Health Organization (WHO) is governed by its 194 member states.

It is the world's highest health policy setting body and is composed of health ministers from member states.

  • It was felt after the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the shortcomings of global health systems. 
  • For this at a special session The Health Assembly adopted “The World Together” as title to its initiative of drafting a global pandemic treaty.
  • This resulted the World Health Organisation establishing an intergovernmental negotiating body (INB) to draft and negotiate the contents of the pandemic treaty in compliance with Article 19 of the WHO Constitution.

Article 19 of the WHO Constitution gives the World Health Assembly the authority to adopt conventions or agreements on matters of health. A two-third majority is needed to adopt such conventions or agreements.

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control was set up under Article 19 and it came into force in 2005.

  • The pandemic treaty will be covering aspects like data sharing and genome sequencing of emerging viruses and equitable distribution of vaccines and drugs and related research throughout the world. 
  • This was felt necessary as solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic have seen an inequitable distribution of vaccines so far, with poorer countries at the mercy of others to receive preventive medication.
  • Most countries have followed the “me-first” approach which is not an effective way to deal with a global pandemic.

Analysis

Key-highlights of the recommendations

Suggestions range from accountability to more powers to developing countries to the insufficiency of the International Health Regulations (IHR) to deal with pandemics currently.

  • Global Public Health Convention (GPHC)pushed for three other non-negotiable principles: Solidarity, transparency, and equity.
  • It also suggested incentivising alerting any public health threat, making public health measures an obligation and sharing information, sequences and samples “rapidly and systematically” so everyone can benefit from it, essential.
  • The G20 Health and Development Partnership (HDP)suggested creating a body similar to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) for pandemic preparedness and health system resilience which would report annually to the British Parliament.

Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR)

The OBR, created in 2010, is a fiscal watchdog which provides independent economic forecasts and analysis of the UK economy.

A similar body for health would increase scrutiny of and confidence in Britain’s pandemic plans for future outbreaks.

  • The Geneva Global Health Hub released a report on the politics of a WHO pandemic treaty.
  • It stated, “Whatever the route of the pandemic treaty, whatever the strategies for pandemic preparedness and response, it will not be possible for negotiators to side line how deeply unjust the international order is and to avoid positioning themselves vis á vis this conjuncture, worsened by COVID-19.”

International Health Regulations (IHR):

  • Since IHR falls under Article 21of the WHO’s Constitution, countries have to explicitly opt out if they wish to do so.
  • The potential treaty will be formed under Article 19 under which countries have to explicitly opt in.
  • To address issues of inequity, developed countries have to undertake some positive obligations, which mean they must be party to the treaty. But if they are not, inequity will persist even with a treaty.
  • The IHR, in its ambit, already covers all kinds of public health emergencies of international concern which includes a pandemic.

Need of international collaboration

  • The pandemic has highlighted dangerous fissures in the global health system.
  • The IHR adopted in 2005in the aftermath of the 2002-03 SARS outbreak, do provide a legal framework on how to proceed in such events.
  • The Panel for a Global Public Health Convention (GPHC)— an independent coalition of global leaders working towards preventing infectious disease outbreaks from becoming pandemics — has stressed on the need for accountability in a report released recently.
  • The report noted, “While we appreciate the complexity of negotiating a Convention, we also urge haste. With current systems, we are little better prepared now to face a new pandemic threat than we were two years ago”.

About WHO:

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations that is concerned with international public health.
  • It was established on 7 April 1948, and is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.
  • The core function of WHO is to direct and coordinate international health work through collaboration.
  • The main areas of work are health systems; health through the life-course; non-communicable and communicable diseases; preparedness, surveillance and response; and corporate services.
  • WHO partners with countries, the United Nations system, international organisations, civil society, foundations, academia, and research institutions.
  • The World Health Assembly is attended by delegations from all Member States, and determines the policies of the Organization.

The World Health Assembly constituted an intergovernmental negotiating body in December 2021.

Way forward

The first meeting of INB was held on February 24, 2022.  The second meeting, where the members are expected to discuss the progress on a working draft, will take place by August 1, 2022. 

It is also important to note that a progress report is expected to be delivered to the 76th World Health Assembly in 2023, and its outcome will be submitted to the 77th World Health Assembly in 2024 for consideration.  An intermittent public hearings are also planned.

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