Opinion: A glimmer of light for world action against the next pandemic

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The so-called pandemic treaty to bring greater international cooperation for public health emergencies has been endorsed by more than 20 world leaders — but not by the US, China, India and Russia — in an editorial published in several media outlets and on the World Health Organization (WHO) website on Tuesday. The world leaders wrote that they are “committed to ensuring universal and equitable access to safe, efficacious and affordable vaccines, medicines and diagnostics for this and future pandemics.”

“We believe that nations should work together towards a new international treaty for pandemic preparedness and response,” they added.

Though China and the US did not participate in the editorial, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted that both countries had a positive reaction to the treaty.
That nations should work together for the good of public health should go without saying. But the exact opposite attitude seems have played itself out in a pandemic that has already killed more than 2.8 million people, infected almost 128 million and caused unprecedented economic dislocation around the world. While it is difficult to say if the treaty will even be worth the paper it is signed on, there should be little dispute on the need to urgently get countries back to working in unison. It is widely acknowledged that the establishment in a majority of countries of herd immunity is required to prevent the disease from spreading, and if wealthy countries continue to practice vaccine nationalism with a ‘me first’ attitude, Covid-19 will likely remain a terrible scourge for some time to come.
One is left to wonder how much worse it could possibly get for the global commons after some countries have threatened to block commercial vaccine shipments to allies and ignored WHO guidance on implementing travel restrictions and issuing vaccine passports.
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In the EU, an every-man-for-himself mentality has taken hold that makes it doubtful that the 27-nation bloc will ever emerge from this crisis as a stronger steward of its 450 million inhabitants.
Wealthy nations, such as my own, Canada, that boast of “protecting those in need” have had to be reminded that it’s a bad idea to stockpile lifesaving vaccines while poorer nations go without. (According to the People’s Vaccine Alliance, Canada has ordered enough vaccines to inoculate every citizen five times over, but it has promised to donate excess vaccines.)

If the Covid-19 pandemic response were an exam, many world leaders would have to cheat on their finals to obtain a passing grade. Hence the pandemic treaty initiative appears as something of a diplomatic off-ramp for world leaders to absolve themselves of responsibility for poor handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It was a near miracle that several major powers, including France, the United Kingdom, and Germany, even managed to come together to sign a single piece of paper, while back in the corridors of power they are engaged in childlike tit-for-tat diplomacy — for example, the UK and EU’s ongoing battle over AstraZeneca vaccine contracts or EU members breaking with Brussels to obtain vaccines outside of the bloc’s strategy.
Despite the assurances from Tedros that support for the treaty is building from major superpowers, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the US had “some concerns” about the timing of negotiations for a new treaty.

Also absent from the initial group of treaty supporters is Canada. (The office of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not immediately respond to my request for comment.)

While using scarce resources to push for a treaty strikes me as odd in light of the lack of cooperation during the past year, the substance of the proposed treaty raises some crucial issues for improved future pandemic response. It advocates for a “One Health” approach to include humans, animals and the planet. This suggests that attention and resources would be earmarked for issues such as climate change, deforestation, poaching and displacement of people. Because virus hotspots are closely tied to environmental change, which is happening at a faster rate than ever, climate needs to be a crucial component of any review of global pandemic response.

As part of pandemic prevention, more resources also need to be allocated for such measures as virus testing laboratories in poorer regions, stockpiling of personal protection equipment, and surveillance.

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As for the WHO, it has been widely criticized for its early handling of the pandemic for going easy on China during the first phase and being slow to declare a “public health emergency of international concern.” The Geneva-based organization needs to work hard to regain the moral authority to cajole member states into action. That can begin with implementing major reforms demanded by wealthy member states, such as empowering it to have speedier access to areas of disease outbreaks, which will better position it to face pandemics ahead on.

“I’m heartened,” Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, the medical director of the special pathogens unit at Boston Medical Center, told me. Calling the proposed treaty ambitious, she said that the current International Health Regulations (IHR), which govern what the WHO can or cannot do, are “not enough to handle the kind of challenges we need moving forward. It is a soft law meaning not much can be done if a member state refuses to build capacity or cooperate in sharing information or samples after an event has occurred.”

The proposed treaty, she said, expands well beyond IHR and may create more incentives for cooperation.

Bhadelia also noted that an improved global health infrastructure for research is also needed (for example to test drug efficacy), as well as equity and access for vaccines and diagnostics.

No matter how succinct and powerful the language, the effectiveness of international treaties is only as good as the political will of the signatory countries.

If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything it is that we are an extremely interconnected and interdependent global community. We have learned that viruses do not respect borders and feast mercilessly on disunity and lack of coordination.

For the preservation of humanity itself, current and future governments need to set aside their differences, swallow their pride, and come together to prevent another pandemic of this scale. We can only hope that this proposal takes us closer to that goal.



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