What is the pandemic agreement and why have negotiations been so difficult?

Global health leaders will meet in Geneva on May 27 at the annual World Health Assembly, where a new agreement for countries to work together to prepare for, prevent and respond to pandemics – known as the ‘pandemic agreement’ – will top the agenda to stand.

It was first proposed by world leaders early 2021, promising to avoid the mistakes of the Covid-19 pandemic next time.

The negotiating process, involving nearly 200 countries, has proven challenging, and the plan has been subject to what World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called “a barrage of fake news, lies and conspiracy theories.”

Discussions are likely to break down, and a completed text may not be ready by the editing deadline. But those involved say this is a possibility to make the world safer – and fairer – that humanity cannot afford to do without.

What is the idea behind the agreement?

The Covid-19 pandemic had a devastating impact worldwide. About 7 million deaths have been directly attributed to the virus, but these are believed to be at least indirect deaths double That. The disruption caused by the virus increased poverty and hunger. Healthcare systems were no longer able to reliably provide the regular care people needed, and people in poorer countries were often hit hardest.

The promise of the agreement was to ensure that the world would be better prepared and protected from future pandemics – with equitable access to the tools needed to stop potential pandemic outbreaks, as well as vaccines and treatments.

Announcing the plans, world leaders said a treaty would be “our legacy that protects our children and grandchildren” and pledged to be “guided by solidarity, fairness, transparency, inclusivity and equality.”

Did it work out that way?

Many campaigners have spoken out disappointment as details of the negotiations have emerged. This month, Global justice is now accused rich countries ‘refuse to learn lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic’ and block moves to take on the vested interests of big pharmaceutical companies.

Others have questioned the need for a treaty at all, suggesting that it will not necessarily solve the problems that have arisen during the Covid pandemic, with countries likely to ignore any elements of a treaty they disagree with during an emergency .

Dr. Precious Matsoso of South Africa, co-chair of the intergovernmental negotiating body overseeing the talks, said progress is being made and promised “a meaningful, lasting agreement”.

And there is a feeling that we have to look through. Michel Kazatchkine, a former member of the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response, said: “It’s worth it because it provides a foundation. It is very unlikely that it will answer all the challenges that are on our plate – but I think a failure would be truly terrible for the multilateral system, for the world of solidarity that we all want to see in the future, for the WHO, for the United Nations system. So we have to work very hard until the last minute to get something.”

At what stage are the negotiations?

This week, negotiators have been meeting almost every day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. to wrap up negotiations in time for the meeting.

It follows multiple negotiating sessions where draft texts have been put forward and taken apart. The last publicly available draft suggests that there is agreement in many areas, including on the need for countries to “strengthen science, public health and pandemic literacy among populations.” It includes plans to establish a “conference of the parties (COP)” to regularly review the agreement’s implementation, and promises of additional financial resources for lower-income countries.

But there are still areas of real bottlenecks, including the issue of “access to pathogens and benefit sharing.” If poorer countries grant richer countries – and their big pharmaceutical companies – access to materials and information about pathogens that could become pandemics, are those poorer countries guaranteed access to the resulting vaccines and medicines? More recent drafts of the agreement have suggested that such a system could be agreed in principle, but details have been deferred for later discussion.

It isn’t yet clearly whether the agreement will be a treaty – giving it greater force in international law – or a regulation.

Does the agreement take away the sovereignty of countries?

The deal has been the subject of enormous amounts of misinformation and disinformation, including false claims that the agreement would give the WHO the power to impose lockdowns, or require countries to give away a fifth of their vaccines.

A WHO spokesperson responded to recent similar claims by Britain’s Nigel Farage by saying such claims were “false and were never solicited or suggested. This agreement does not and cannot grant sovereignty to the WHO.”

But in many countries the discussion has become politicized and concerns about sovereignty have affected mainstream politics. This month, British Health Secretary Andrew Stephenson told the House of Commons that the current text was “not acceptable” to the British government, and stressed that “protecting our sovereignty is a British red line”. Negotiators in New Zealand have also been told to prioritize sovereignty.

The draft text of the agreement reaffirms “the principle of the sovereignty of states in addressing public health issues” and recognizes “the sovereign right of states over their biological resources.”