Hopes high for a new global, pandemic treaty: WHO chief

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London: The head of the World Health Organisation says he is encouraged by the broad consensus he sees for a new binding treaty that would set the rules governing how the international community responds to the next pandemic.

The World Health Assembly is holding a special meeting from Monday to begin talks on a possible new pact.

An aerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear power reactor shows damage from the explosion and fire.Credit:Tass

Such a pact would establish agreed rules on sharing, developing and distributing vaccines, technology, research, medical supplies and data with member states or countries negotiating the rules.

Agreements of this scale can take years to draw up. The last pandemic treaty took several years to formulate but only applied to the flu, meaning countries were free to act on their own when COVID-19 emerged from Wuhan, China in late 2019.

Speaking at a news conference at the WHO’s Geneva headquarters, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus said the “ongoing chaos” of the COVID-19 pandemic underlined the need for an “ironclad global agreement” for pandemic preparedness.

“The special session of the World Health Assembly is therefore a unique opportunity for a generational agreement that transcends media cycles and election cycles,” he said.

Asked by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age what a best-case scenario for the world would be next week, Dr Tedros said he hoped member states would agree on a “launching pad” for a treaty.

“I hope they will agree to start a process for a binding pact that will address the problems that we have faced,” he said.

“I think they can really come up with a solution because everyone has seen to what extent we were really disorganised and we have all seen the failures in the global system.”

He said individual countries had not acted in the best interest of the world because there were no defined obligation for nations to fulfil.

Six months after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 a new global agreement had been debated and approved. Credit:Tass

“I hope countries will agree for a binding pact and epidemics can be managed better because it’s only when there’s a rule of law, or pact that countries will behave in a certain way.

“I hope the outcome will be good but still we don’t expect everything to be finished now,” he said.

“It’s a start of a journey.”

The WHO has come under sustained criticism for its initial response to the pandemic. The UN body and it’s Ethiopian Director-General were fiercely criticised by the former Trump Administration for what it said was the organisation’s pro-China bias.

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark addressing Chatham House this week.Credit:Screengrab/Chatham House

The WHO denies this and has regularly pointed out that it can only operate under the rules drawn up and agreed to by the member states.

Trump withdrew the United States from WHO but this was reversed by President Joe Biden. However, the Biden Administration has also been critical of the WHO, including its much maligned initial review into the origins of COVID-19.

Several reviews into the organisation, including one co-chaired by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, have called for a significant beefing up of the body’s rules and functions, including that they be given powers akin to a UN weapons inspector to enter countries where new pathogens have emerged.

Clark, co-chair of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, told Chatham House this week that the world could not afford to take too long to negotiate a new agreement.

“Please act, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, we can’t shrug it off, this is not something that needs to be debated endlessly, please get on with it, get on with the negotiations for the treaty,” she said.

Clark said it was possible to determine a treaty within six months, pointing to the duo of conventions agreed in the “gold standard” timeframe of six months following the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in April 1986.

The Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident was agreed upon and came into effect in October 1986.

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