Global Pandemics Prevention Treaty

By Sundeep Waslekar, President, Strategic Foresight Group

European Council President Charles Michel and WHO Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus, along with two dozen Heads of Government have called for an international treaty for the prevention and preparedness of pandemics. It plans to promote

  • Increased surveillance of animal disease in all countries to have early warning on pandemics
  • Alerts on public health risks including real time data collection and predictive analytics
  • Global coordination for supplying medicines, equipment, and medical emergency personnel
  • Research cooperation in diagnostics, such as sharing data on pathogens, biological samples, and genomic codes
  • Research cooperation in remedial measures, such as producing vaccines, medicines, and equipment
  • Equitable solutions and sharing of responsibilities by countries
  • Reliable and transparent flow of information to citizens around the world.

The treaty can be introduced under Article 19 of the WHO Constitution by the World Health Assembly. It will be ideal if the process is initiated at the 74th World Health Assembly in late 2021 and the treaty is concluded in the 75th World Health Assembly just about the time the world will be coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic. By then, at least 160-180 million people, or 2 percent of the world’s population, would be infected by this virus and probably 5 million lives would be lost. In addition to the human cost, significant portion of the world economy would be wiped out by next year. The only way the world’s leaders can express remorse for such a grand suffering on account of their collective failure would be to introduce a regime to prevent future pandemics.

The treaty is overdue. If it had existed in 2019, some of the catastrophic consequences of the novel coronavirus would have been avoided. The Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, established by the WHO and the World Bank and chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, had publicly warned in September 2019: “There is a very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people and wiping out nearly 5% of the world’s economy. A global pandemic on that scale would be catastrophic, creating widespread havoc, instability, and insecurity.”

Despite such a clear warning, no action was taken to prevent the Covid-19 crisis until it was too late. The WHO declared a global health emergency on 30 January 2020. If a Pandemics Prevention Pact had existed, countries of the world would have been required to meet in an emergency session within 48 hours to discuss coordinated response. Instead, we saw nothing but a childish and irresponsible blame game between big powers in the early months of 2020. Within two weeks of the WHO declaration of a global health emergency, foreign ministers of most countries, including China and the United States, spent a weekend together in Munich at a security conference. But there is no evidence of their engaging in constructive talks to introduce immediate measures such as stoppage of certain airline routes, testing at airports, enhancing supplies of equipment and medicines, joint research for vaccines, and launching of emergency medical teams to the needy regions.

The new treaty should make it mandatory for the WHO director general to convene a ministerial digital conclave within hours of a declaration of a global health emergency to negotiate emergency response measures through international coordination.

Another lesson from the early days of Covid-19 is about the lack of transparent information from China, where the disease originated. The US State Department was obviously aware of the risk as it closed its consulate in Wuhan in late January 2020. There is no evidence of worldwide information flow about the new disease initiated by China and the United States in the first weeks of 2020. The significance of early detection and transparent worldwide communication of public health risks cannot be underestimated.

While Charles Michel was provoked by the Covid-19 pandemic to propose such a treaty in Paris in November 2020, and then mobilise world leaders to issue a public appeal in March 2021, we should not be complacent when we finally come out of the present crisis. The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has warned that 827,000 viruses in mammals and birds have the potential to infect people. Human activities such as deforestation and animal trade which destroy nature and increase human-animal contact will be at the source of many future pandemics. We may come out of one pandemic, but before we know we may be ravaged by another.

If we want to prevent future pandemics, we need to address the problem at various levels. At the level of international law, the treaty should be crafted as a robust instrument empowering WHO and forcing all countries in the world to coordinate prevention and response in the future. The advocates of the treaty should avoid the temptation of an agreement based on the lowest common denominator merely to have any treaty. They will therefore need public support.

The efforts in international law must be supported at the level of a global public discourse with sensitisation campaign by think tanks, civil society organisations and business companies. Anyone who cares for human society should be part of an endeavour to promote the treaty with an effective and mandatory implementation mechanism, binding on all states in the world. As some of the states are likely to resist the challenge to their sovereignty, a global campaign in the spirit of fostering our shared humanity is required.

Finally, we should totally reject excesses of nationalism reflected in the hiding of critical information, use of a human tragedy to accentuate geopolitical rivalries and vaccine competitions. We must say enough is enough to exaggerated ideas of nationalism and geopolitical competition. If we want to survive as a human race and not be annihilated by a pathogen more dangerous than Covid-19 in future, we must learn to respect humanity above our artificially constructed identities. Only if we recognise that the human race must survive at the cost of our national ego and political ambitions, will our species have a chance of survival.

This article was authored by Sundeep Waslekar, President, Strategic Foresight Group