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A healthcare worker with a syringe

A healthcare worker draws up a syringe with Pfizer-BioNtech's vaccine at a vaccination center in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. (Photo: Frank Rumpenhorst/picture alliance via Getty Images)

WHO Chief Urges Pandemic Treaty to Avoid Another 'Crisis of Sharing and Solidarity'

"It will all happen again unless you, the nations of the world, can come together to say with one voice: never again."

Julia Conley

As the World Health Organization warned of a "very high" global risk posed by the Omicron variant of Covid-19, representatives from the body's 194 member states gathered in Geneva to forge a treaty aimed at preparing the world for the next pandemic—with public health officials warning that the emergence of Omicron should push governments to embrace global solidarity to avoid another disastrous public health crisis.

"Vaccine equity is not charity; it's in every country's best interests. No country can vaccinate its way out of the Covid-19 pandemic alone."

The meeting of the World Health Assembly (WHA)—the WHO's decision-making body—will be held from Monday to Wednesday and follows a draft resolution negotiated on Sunday by member nations, detailing how the world will prevent, prepare for, and respond to pandemics. Countries aim to formalize the resolution in Geneva.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, told leaders that the news of Omicron—the highly mutated variant that's been detected in countries including Portugal and Scotland—"underlines just how perilous and precarious our situation is" as vaccine doses remain out of reach to billions of people in the Global South.

"Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics," Tedros said. "We shouldn't need another wake-up call. We should all be wide awake to the threat of this virus. But Omicron's very emergence is another reminder that although many of us might think we're done with Covid-19, it's not done with us."

"It will all happen again unless you, the nations of the world, can come together to say with one voice: never again," he continued.

Under the treaty, member nations would be called on to share data, including genome sequencing, regarding emerging viruses, as well as vaccines and treatments like those developed by Moderna and Pfizer—the vast majority of which have gone to wealthy countries.

"At its heart, the Covid-19 pandemic is a crisis of solidarity and sharing," said Tedros.

The treaty, which would enter into force in 2024, should "provide the overarching framework to foster greater international cooperation and provide a platform for strengthening global health security in four areas," said Tedros, including:

  • Better governance, "to provide high-level political leadership for rapid and coordinated action";
  • Better financing "that is truly additional, predictable, equitable, and aligned with national, regional, and global priorities," such as "a financial intermediary fund established at the World Bank, financed by countries and regional organizations on a burden-sharing basis, and supported by a secretariat based at WHO";
  • "Better systems and tools to predict, prevent, detect, and respond rapidly to outbreaks with epidemic and pandemic potential," like the WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence in Berlin and the WHO BioHub System; and
  • "A strengthened, empowered, and sustainably financed WHO at the center of the global health architecture."

"More than any humans in history, we have the ability to anticipate pandemics, to prepare for them, to unravel the genetics of pathogens, to detect them at their earliest stages, to prevent them spiralling into global disasters, and to respond when they do," said Tedros.

Public health officials including Tedros have said for more than a year that the refusal of wealthy countries to waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines—which would allow the Global South to develop generic versions of the most effective vaccines—is creating conditions in which variants can emerge and spread. Countries including the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany continue to oppose waiving the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

"Vaccine equity is not charity; it's in every country's best interests," said Tedros, noting that low-income countries have received less than 1% of vaccine doses. "No country can vaccinate its way out of the Covid-19 pandemic alone."

As the WHA meeting opened in Geneva, the health ministers from seven of the wealthiest countries in the world—the G7—convened an emergency meeting to discuss the spread of Omicron. G7 members including the U.S., U.K., and Canada have restricted travelers from several countries in Southern Africa following South African scientists' announcement last week that they had identified the variant—but vaccine equity advocates urged the wealthy governments to focus Monday's meeting on a global public health strategy.

"The world will be watching G7 health ministers today," said Tim Cole, Europe executive director for the ONE Campaign. "Will they take decisions to end the pandemic and limit the emergence of new variants or continue to be short-sighted and hoard vaccines?"

Countries including the U.S. and Brazil were reluctant as of last week to forge a treaty that would be legally binding, which is supported by the U.K., the European Union, and 70 other countries.

"Voluntary mechanisms" such as donations of vaccine doses "have not solved" the challenges posed by the pandemic, said Tedros.

"The best way we can address them is with a legally binding agreement between nations; an accord forged from the recognition that we have no future but a common future."

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