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The WHO is seeking a new treaty on handling future pandemics. It could be a hard sell

On November 29, the World Health Organization will convene a virtual summit for its member states to consider the handling of future outbreaks. Pictured above: WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
On November 29, the World Health Organization will convene a virtual summit for its member states to consider the handling of future outbreaks. Pictured above: WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

The World Health Organization is convening a special session of its governing body, the World Health Assembly, to start talks on a new global treaty covering pandemics. Representatives of WHO's 194 member states will meet virtually for three days starting on Monday to consider new international rules for handling future outbreaks.

The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, says the world has not worked well together to confront the current COVID-19 pandemic.

"Everybody has seen to what extent we were really disorganized and all have seen the failures of the global system," Tedros says.

COVID-19 pandemic shows "we don't have rules of the game"

Those failures during the current pandemic have been many, says Tedros.

The first was the slow response to containing the initial outbreak, say public health specialists. They also point to conflicts over the lack of transparency and information sharing, particularly by China. Some countries were accused of hoarding of medical supplies. Then when vaccines were finally developed, poorer nations have complained that they weren't shared equitably. A final concern, the experts say: The global response to the crisis is led by an underfunded World Health Organization that has no power to force any nation to do anything.

The idea behind this upcoming session of the World Health Assembly, Tedros says, is to start sketching out a new world order to handle future health crises.

"We don't have rules of the game," Tedros says of the current situation. "To manage shared problems, like pandemics, you need laws and rules that bring obligations to countries. That's what we miss. And I hope countries will agree to a binding pact so that pandemics can be managed better."

The nearly 200 nations and territories that are members of the World Health Organization will have a chance to weigh in on what should or shouldn't be in such a binding pact.

Many low-income countries are stressing "equity" in the talks and want wealthy nations to commit to making new vaccines, diagnostic tests, drugs and other resources universally available.

Wealthy nations want increased international access to information and the areas where outbreaks originate. But some governments, particularly China's, view this as a violation of their sovereignty.

New pandemic treaty could be a hard sell

A new set of international pandemic rules might mean the next outbreak is contained more quickly. Nonetheless, asking political leaders to commit to being good global citizens in the midst of a deadly crisis rather than looking out for their own national interests is a hard sell.

Suerie Moon, co-director of the Global Health Center at the Graduate Institute of Geneva, says COVID has demonstrated that the world desperately needs a new international framework to deal with 21st century pandemics and the massive damage they can cause. She says the upcoming negotiations at the World Health Assembly are a litmus test for world leaders.

"After arguably the greatest shared global catastrophe since the Second World War," she asks, "are our leaders going to show even a fraction of the ambition, a fraction of the vision that we saw back in 1945?"

This special session of the World Health Assembly aims simply to start negotiations for a new pandemic treaty. The group may also decide to revamp existing international health regulations — or choose to do nothing at all.

And if a new international treaty is proposed, it could still take years to ratify if history is any guide, says Moon. Different versions of the proposal will likely be argued over and renegotiated. And each country would need to sign on and push the deal through their domestic treaty ratification process.

"We'll have to see how this plays out in the coming two, three or four years," she says. "I hope it doesn't last longer than that, but certainly it's not realistic that this would be done in a year."

The World Health Assembly runs through Wednesday.

By the end of the three-day meeting, Moon says, it should be clear whether there's the political will to craft new international rules on how to handle the next global health crisis.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.