Leaders of 23 countries and the World Health Organization backed drawing up an international treaty that would help deal with future health emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic by tightening rules on sharing information.
The idea of such a treaty, also aimed at ensuring universal and equitable access to vaccines, medicines and diagnostics for pandemics, was floated by the chairman of European Union leaders, Charles Michel, last November.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has endorsed the proposal, but formal negotiations have not begun, diplomats say.
Tedros told a news conference on Tuesday that a treaty would tackle gaps exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. A draft resolution on negotiations could be presented to the WHO’s 194 member states at their annual meeting in May, he said.
The WHO has been criticised for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and was accused by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump of helping China shield the extent of its outbreak, which the agency denies.
A joint WHO-China study on the virus’s origins said it had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal and that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely” as a cause. Data was withheld from WHO experts who went to China to research its origins, Tedros said.
Frequently Asked Questions
A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.
There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.
Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.
The treaty proposal got the formal backing of the leaders of Fiji, Portugal, Romania, Britain, Rwanda, Kenya, France, Germany, Greece, Korea, Chile, Costa Rica, Albania, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, the Netherlands, Tunisia, Senegal, Spain, Norway, Serbia, Indonesia, Ukraine and the WHO itself.
“There will be other pandemics and other major health emergencies. No single government or multilateral agency can address this threat alone,” the leaders wrote in a joint opinion piece in major newspapers.
“We believe that nations should work together towards a new international treaty for pandemic preparedness and response.”
The leaders of China and the United States did not sign the piece, but Tedros said both powers had reacted positively to the proposal, and all states would be represented in talks.
White House spokeswoman Jan Psaki, speaking later to a regular press briefing in Washington, said: “We do have some concerns primarily about the timing on launching into negotiations for a new treaty right now.”
Negotiations could divert attention away from substantive issues regarding the pandemic response and future preparedness, although the Biden administration remained open to international collaboration, she added.