Highlight 14/2023 – Backdrop for the New Pandemic Treaty: Lessons Learnt from this Pandemic
Zishi Wang, 18 April 2023
Back in 2019, one would have said that the global health governance is in great shape. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed numerous weaknesses not just within the public health system, as society in whole. For example, the lack of coordination between countries, with different political attitudes in each country leading to varied responses to the virus. This lack of cooperation led to unnecessary deaths in certain countries, and extra costs of protection for other countries. Other unilateral acts, such as disruptions in supply of medical resources, domestic vaccine prioritization, and the politicization of sourcing the virus. Such issues have delayed the access to and the development of treatment and vaccine for most of the world. Thus in the beginning of the “Zero Draft” which serves as the basis of negotiation for this new treaty, they noted the catastrophic failure to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic as the raison d’etre. In this highlight, we would examine some of the new definitions and articles in this upcoming treaty, and see how they have integrated the experiences from this pandemic.
Under the current system, since the International Health Regulations came into effect in 2005, the only obligation for the state is to report to the WHO within 48 hours a public health concern, addressing a set criteria pertaining to its international spread, and then to contain it with a set of given measures. Due to modern medical technology, people thought that the days of disruptive pandemics were over. Compared with the International Health Regulations, which have a narrow focus with limited and insufficient enforcement mechanisms, the proposed new pandemic treaty has a more comprehensive approach.
The new draft treaty starts by defining a pandemic, previously a power reserved for the International Health Regulations emergency committee of experts when calling a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. This agreed upon definition would provide a more concrete basis for other important definitions. The definition of “Pandemic-Related Products” is useful when regulating the distribution of vital goods across the world. There are other terms left to be defined, like “One-Health Approach”, “infodemic” and “recovery”. The “infodemic” reflects the massive disinformation campaign that we have experienced during Covid-19.
Article 4 of the draft pandemic treaty lists the guiding principles, the most important one being human rights. The principles listed in this article, except for the right to health, are not listed in the original International Health Regulations. This represents a shift in global health from being a largely scientific issue to include a more systematic approach, including transparency, accountability, gender equality, minority rights, common but differentiated responsibilities and etc.
The common but differentiated responsibility states that countries with more health-related capacities should bear more responsibilities in a pandemic. During this pandemic, it was on a voluntary basis; however, often obstructed by vaccine nationalism and strongly politicized. Writing this obligation into of the pandemic treaty would contribute to resolving these problems and decrease the antagonism between countries through a rules-based framework.
The other important factor in Article 6 to be addressed is establishing a predictable supply chain of vital goods, consisting of stockpiles, assessing production capacities, means of transport and potential demand, and most importantly, to ensure fair distribution. At various stages of this pandemic, we have experienced market disorder of raw materials and medicine, also vaccines being wasted while developing world struggles to gain access. Making a regulated framework of supply and transports would facilitate equitable distribution of treatment methods.
Concerning the “infodemic”, there is Article 17 which provides a binding basis for countries to promote science literature and to battle false information. In this pandemic, we have seen numerous parties, with varying motives, unintentionally or knowingly disseminating lies. In order for the people to better protect themselves, they must know better, and the authorities and experts must engage the public in a more transparent and regular way.
The “One-Heath” concept stated in Article 18 realizes that public health is closely linked to climate change, biodiversity loss, and ecological downgrade, leading to harmful animal-human interactions, where animal transmit their disease to people, a notable example being the bird flu. This one health approach represents health for more than human beings, extending to nature and its ecosystems as well. For this, the state must take an integrated approach to tackle this challenge.
There are many other important articles in this proposed draft treaty, including enhancing prediction capacities, protection of human rights, global cooperation, intellectual property access, and even dispute settlement. The global health issue has demonstrated its vastness beyond a scientific problem, which requires diplomatic solutions. Some of these aspects were discussed in the existing International Health Regulations; however, more specificity and targeted regulation is required. In general, this proposed treaty embodies the invaluable experiences mankind has gained through this pandemic. Though the draft of the treaty is far from perfect, and is destined to become the subject of fierce debates, it is a solid step forward and in the right direction.
Zishi Wang, Highlight 14/2023 – Backdrop for the New Pandemic Treaty: Lessons Learnt from this Pandemic, 18 April 2023, available at www.meig.ch
The views expressed in the MEIG Highlights are personal to the authors and neither reflect the positions of the MEIG Programme nor those of the University of Geneva.