Director-general of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Picture: REUTERS/FABRICE COFFRINI
Director-general of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Picture: REUTERS/FABRICE COFFRINI

Zurich — Governments and the World Health Organization (WHO) are uniting on a push for a new treaty to improve defences against future pandemics after Covid-19 exposed weaknesses in the system.

The main goal of the accord would be to ensure what the WHO, one of the signatories, has called for throughout the pandemic: a collective approach across countries and societies that would make the world more resilient in future outbreaks.

The push comes amid signs that getting past the pandemic will still take time. Many countries in Europe have recently instituted tighter lockdown measures amid a resurgence of Covid-19 cases. In the US, the head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned of “impending doom” amid a new wave of infections.

In an article co-signed by world leaders, the EU and the WHO, the group says the coronavirus “exploited our weaknesses and divisions”.

“We must seize this opportunity and come together as a global community for peaceful co-operation that extends beyond this crisis,” according to the op-ed. “Building our capacities and systems to do this will take time and require a sustained political, financial and societal commitment over many years.”

International co-operation will be needed to improve alert systems, data-sharing, research and the production and distribution of medical items, such as vaccines and personal protective equipment.

Such a move could give more power to the WHO, which, so far, has been operating on the principles of the International Health Regulations, which are not technically enforceable. In November, Helen Clark, one of the leaders of an independent panel evaluating the world’s response to the pandemic, said the organisation needs greater freedom from politics to fight global health crises.

“The International Health Regulations is a piece of legislation, but it’s without meaning unless countries are fully committed to its implementation,” said Mike Ryan, head of the WHO health emergencies programme. “Such a treaty would provide that impetus in which we in public health can do our work much more effectively.”

The treaty would be added to the WHO’s constitution, and may lead to more mutual accountability and transparency, the letter said.

Signatories to the letter include German Chancellor Angela Merkel, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron. While the US and China haven’t signed the op-ed, they have a “positive” stance towards the treaty, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press conference.

“Ultimately, how such a treaty is developed, and what it looks like and whether it’s ratified is a matter for our member states, the nations of the world,” Tedros said.


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