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World leaders propose new pandemic treaty

Twenty five nations joined with the European Council and World Health Organization in making an "urgent call" for creation of an international pandemic treaty.

A line for COVID-19 testing in New York City
A line for COVID-19 testing in New York City (AN/Hrag Vartanian)

GENEVA (AN) — Twenty five nations joined with the European Council and World Health Organization in making an "urgent call" on Tuesday for creation of an international pandemic treaty aimed at protecting the world from future health crises.

Calling the COVID-19 pandemic "the biggest challenge to the global community since the 1940s," the leaders argued in a jointly signed op-ed article that a new international treaty is needed to "build a more robust international health architecture that will protect future generations" by beefing up collective health capacities that can shape the world's preparedness for and response to future pandemics.

"The main goal of this treaty would be to foster an all-of-government and all-of-society approach, strengthening national, regional and global capacities and resilience to future pandemics," they wrote. "This includes greatly enhancing international cooperation to improve, for example, alert systems, data-sharing, research, and local, regional and global production and distribution of medical and public health counter measures, such as vaccines, medicines, diagnostics and personal protective equipment."

The proposed treaty has the backing of leaders from Albania, Chile, Costa Rica, Fiji, France, Germany, Greece, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Rwanda, Senegal, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Ukraine and the United Kingdom.

Coordination and fairness

The leaders said the treaty would be rooted in WHO's constitution and draw on other "relevant" international organizations and existing global health instruments, "especially" WHO’s International Health Regulations, which took effect in June 2007 and are legally binding among 196 nations. They lay out nations’ rights and obligations towards disease outbreaks and other acute public health risks.

"At a time when COVID-19 has exploited our weaknesses and divisions, we must seize this opportunity and come together as a global community for peaceful cooperation that extends beyond this crisis," the leaders wrote. "Pandemic preparedness needs global leadership for a global health system fit for this millennium. To make this commitment a reality, we must be guided by solidarity, fairness, transparency, inclusiveness and equity."

European Council President Charles Michel put forward the idea at the Group of 20 major economies' summit last November, telling world leaders a new treaty "could help prevent future pandemics and help us respond more quickly and in a more coordinated manner."

At a press briefing on Tuesday with Michel, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the treaty could be used to improve data and technology sharing, transparency and accountability, and equity in vaccine sharing even while the 1-year-old COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected 127 million people and killed nearly 2.8 million people, is still raging.

"The world cannot afford to wait until the pandemic is over to start planning for the next one," he said.

Asked about the notable absence of China, Russia and the United States from the group that signed the op-ed letter, Tedros said most nations had to proactively "opt in" to the discussions if they wanted to join, but that all nations would be invited to discuss a draft resolution based on the proposal at the next World Health Assembly in May.

Chinese and U.S. officials were "positive" towards the idea, he added, and "we hope future engagements will bring all countries."