On Wednesday, World Health Organization member states took the first step towards what many governments hope will be a legally binding treaty aimed at strengthening global defenses against pandemics.
A rare special session of the WHO governing body has agreed to establish an intergovernmental negotiating body to meet no later than March to begin negotiations on an international agreement designed to ensure a more coherent and equitable response to future pandemics. But the United States and other countries are pushing for a weaker mechanism that is not legally binding on member states.
WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a staunch supporter of a legally binding treaty, called the decision historic, calling it “a unique opportunity to strengthen the global health architecture to protect and promote the well-being of all people.”
This decision marked only the beginning of negotiations, which promise to be difficult to try to reach a consensus among the 194 Member States of WHO. The agreement requires negotiators to present the results of their discussions in May 2024.
The European Union and the United Kingdom have pushed for an ambitious treaty or legally binding convention for months. The discovery of the Omicron variant, which sparked a new wave of travel and border closure rules primarily targeting the South African countries where the variant was first discovered, has sparked renewed criticism that countries around the world are acting in a patchwork and discriminatory manner.
“There is no better response to the emergence of the Omicron Option than by bringing the international community together in support of efforts to strengthen the legal framework underlying our collective response to pandemics,” UK Ambassador to Geneva Simon Manley said on Twitter.
The United States described the initiative in a statement as “an important step,” but with the support of Brazil and other countries, it refused to commit itself to anything legally binding and left open the possibility of a weaker instrument.
The international agreement is designed to avoid repeating “fragmented and fragmented” moves by countries that, according to Dr. Tedros, have weakened the global response to Covid-19. Supporters of the treaty want to commit to sharing data, virus samples and technology, and ensuring equitable distribution of vaccines.
These questions raise politically sensitive questions of national sovereignty over access to outbreak sites and potential investigations into the causes of diseases – a source of tension between Western governments and China, which has resisted calls for an independent investigation into the emergence of Covid-19. in the Chinese city of Wuhan in early 2020.
China said this week that it “agrees in principle with the idea of further enhancing compliance, financing, sharing and managing information.” But Beijing appears to have been wary of the new treaty and has warned against “politicization, stigmatization and instrumentalization.”