Landmark decision by the World Health Assembly to start negotiations for a pandemic treaty

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND: World Health Organization (WHO) member states today decided to pursue an agreement that can better prepare the world to face future pandemics. The decision, available here, commits member states to begin negotiating a convention, agreement or other international instrument on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. The first meeting must take place no later than 1 March 2022, with an outcome to be presented to the decision-making World Health Assembly in 2024.

“Pandemics recognise no borders,” said Ambassador Frank Tressler Zamorano of Chile at the decision. “Today we have taken the first step in a process that calls upon all of us to work together… equity must be at the centre of our new international instrument,” he added. The instrument must “address the gaps made so starkly evident by Covid-19… let us move together in solidarity to do the work we have ahead of us,” said Ambassador Sally Mansfield of Australia. Chile and Australia led on the drafting of the decision confirmed today.

Ending the pandemic is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General

The decision-making body of the WHO, the World Health Assembly (WHA) met 30 November – 1 December in a special session specifically to address shortcomings in the response of the international health community to the pandemic. The need for greater equity and solidarity were the focus of many member states’ comments in welcoming the decision, and were the focus of a working group on pandemic preparedness and response, led by the US and Indonesia, that preceded the special session of the WHA.

The working group’s report highlighted a number of issues that were not adequately addressed in the International Health Regulations – which outline countries obligations in the face of border-crossing epidemics – ‘equity’ being chief among them. Mechanisms set up to deliver equitable and timely access to needed pandemic countermeasures, and those created to share technology, intellectual property and know-how needed to scale up manufacturing capacity, such as the Covid-19 Technology Access Pool, suffered from poor uptake and delayed delivery of commitments. The proposed treaty would aim to correct these shortcomings. “‘Me-first’ approaches… stymie the global solidarity needed to deal with a global threat,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s Director General, in a press release.

This decision is a “cause for celebration and a cause for hope, that we all need,” Dr Tedros added in an address at the assembly. But he had at the same time an even more urgent message to assembled delegates:

“I have one simple request to all member states: End this pandemic,” he said. More than 40 years into the global AIDS epidemic we still have no vaccine and no cure for this disease. Two years into the Covid-19 pandemic we have not one but many vaccines and many other effective tools. Just in the past week this virus has demonstrated that it will not simply disappear. How many more lives and livelihoods it takes is up to us. Ending the pandemic is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice.”

It is significant that the WHO has reached this historic decision on World AIDS Day, 1 December. The HIV pandemic demonstrated with devastating clarity the need for coordinated public action rather than pharmaceutical business-as-usual to face down epidemiological crises. This is a lesson the world so far failed to internalise in addressing Covid-19, but still could if it takes decisive steps.

Dr Tedros specifically called on the international community to meet the goal of vaccinating 40% of the population of every country by the end of this year and 70% by the middle of next year. To facilitate this, he called on countries that have already reached 70% vaccination to swap their vaccine delivery schedules with Covax, a facility that was intended to ensure equitable distribution of vaccine doses but which has failed to meet that goal ​​as wealthy countries have bought up disproportionate amounts of available doses. A recent analysis by the Financial Times found wealthy nations had received 16 times more doses per person than nations reliant on Covax.

This pandemic was avoidable. The next pandemics will also be preventable and avoidable, so long as we work together and maintain an ambition that this never happens again.

Catalina Devandas Aguilar, Ambassador of Costa Rica

Switzerland this week announced that 1 million doses of Moderna vaccine initially intended for its population would instead be donated to the Covax facility. This is a move worth emulating, though it will not go far enough to serve, for example, the 1.2 billion people living in Africa. 

Dr Tedros further called on countries to support a waiver of intellectual property related to pandemic countermeasures, as well as the sharing of technology and know-how needed to scale up manufacturing and supply of those countermeasures. Discussions taking place at the World Trade Organization to waive elements of its Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement related to Covid-10 countermeasures have not yet progressed. A planned WTO ministerial conference slated to take place this week had to be delayed due to the emergence of a new Covid-19 variant.

“This pandemic was avoidable,” but instead it has “overturned our world… our societies are suffering and our most vulnerable populations are the most affected as their lives and means of survival are being devastated,” said Catalina Devandas Aguilar, the Ambassador of Costa Rica. Costa Rica had in March 2020, in the earliest days of the pandemic, proposed a pooling mechanism to share technology, knowledge and intellectual property related to pandemic countermeasures. The WHO launched such a body, the Covid-19 Technology Access Pool, in May 2020. Unfortunately, it did not receive its first licence until last week.

“The next pandemics will also be preventable and avoidable, so long as we work together and maintain an ambition that this never happens again,” Aguilar concluded.

Kaitlin Mara
Kaitlin Mara
Kaitlin Mara, MSc, has been writing about international intellectual property and innovation policy for a decade.


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