Commentary: The Pandemic Treaty That Won’t Prevent a Pandemic

World Health Organization
by Steven Groves and Brett Schaefer


If a “pandemic treaty” fails to account for the dismal international response to COVID-19 and isn’t focused on preventing future pandemics, is it really a “pandemic treaty”? Yet that’s the current state of the draft “pandemic treaty” being negotiated under the auspices of the World Health Organization (WHO).

The failures of the international health system’s response to COVID are well-established. The People’s Republic of China failed to inform the international community of the outbreak in a timely manner as required by the International Health Regulations – a provision established because of Beijing’s cover-up of the 2002 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). China mischaracterized COVID-19 saying that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission—a deadly lie that the WHO parroted unquestioningly.

The failures didn’t stop there. China did not expeditiously share genomic data of the virus and did not allow prompt access to the Wuhan lab by an international expert team. It also shut down internal travel while allowing international travel, turning a local outbreak into a global pandemic.

To date, the Chinese government has refused to allow an unfettered independent international investigation into the origins of Covid 19, which even WHO’s director general has called for. A comprehensive, scientific investigation with total access is vital to prepare for and prevent the next pandemic. Without this basic level of cooperation and information, it is farcical to move forward with this Potemkin façade.

All of this resulted in millions of deaths and trillions in economic harm that might have been prevented if China had acted responsibly.

One would expect any new pandemic treaty to—at a minimum—address China’s failures during COVID-19 to prevent future repetition. But the current WHO draft treaty does no such thing.

It fails to require timely access for expert teams, to specify obligations by governments to provide full and timely disclosure of genomic data. Nor does it clarify other measures, such as trade and travel restrictions, that governments can reasonably take in response to a pandemic.

So, what would this new treaty actually do?

Well, it affirms that “Equity is at the centre of pandemic prevention, preparedness and response, both at the national level within States and at the international level between States.” That means that the drafters of the treaty prioritize redistribution and preferences – specifically “unhindered, fair, equitable and timely access to safe, effective, quality and affordable pandemic-related products and services.” If you’re not in the class of people that the notion of “equity” is meant to protect, you just may be out of luck during the next pandemic.

The treaty would also establish a new international bureaucracy to oversee the agreement, because, naturally, if you really want to solve a global problem, you need hundreds of international bureaucrats working on it. The treaty envisions an annual meeting of all the treaty members—a “conference of parties” (COP) just like the U.N. climate-change convention. The COP may, in turn, create “subsidiary bodies” and “expert advisory groups” to carry out the treaty’s functions, including an “Implementation and Compliance Committee.” So there will be lots of busywork.

It’s unclear who’s going to pay for all of this convening and implementing, but you can be sure that the U.S. will be on the hook for more than its fair share if the Biden administration attempts to join it (as it surely would). The financial responsibilities created by the draft treaty are vague, open-ended, and leave an undue level of discretion to whatever international bureaucracy is created to determine which amount of financial support is required from countries that ratify the treaty.

Empowering an international bureaucracy to oversee equitable distribution of pandemic-related products and services is Orwellian enough, but it gets worse. The draft also requires nations to battle “misinformation” and “disinformation” relating to pandemics. Specifically, parties to the treaty must “combat false, misleading, misinformation or disinformation, including through effective international collaboration…”

Presumably, governments and the WHO will decide what is misleading. But, of course, it was the WHO and governments—notably China—that were the most egregious purveyors of disinformation about COVID-19.

Remember, the WHO communicated false information from Beijing that “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission [of COVID-19].” Some governments, including our own, purveyed misinformation or disinformation about the efficacy of masks in preventing the spread of COVID-19, the origins of the virus, and the economic, social, and educational costs from school closures.

Quite simply, the WHO and governments have been wrong (and downright dishonest) too often to give them authority to police misinformation and disinformation—especially when it infringes on the internationally accepted right to freedom of expression.

In addition to all of this, the draft treaty obligates members to “encourage” pharmaceutical companies under their authority to share proprietary technology with “developing” countries (such as China) and waive their intellectual property rights. Such requirements would do grave harm to the property rights of U.S. companies and disincentivize future research and development of vaccines and other medical innovations that could be critical in dealing with a future pandemic.

All of this is a shame. The prevention of future pandemics should be an issue that galvanizes the world. The WHO and the nations negotiating the treaty, including the Biden administration which has been participating in the drafting, have an opportunity to craft a no-nonsense, focused agreement that gets to the heart of the failures of the COVID-19 response.

The current draft treaty, however, falls far from the mark. It ignores the failures of the current international health system revealed by COVID-19: working largely behind closed doors, weakening intellectual property rights, and encouraging actions to address “misinformation” that will certainly be used to suppress free speech rights.

The Biden administration should not sign, and the Senate should not ratify, this fatally flawed effort.

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Brett D. Schaefer is The Heritage Foundation’s Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs. Steven Groves is the think tank’s Margaret Thatcher Fellow, concentrating on issues that threaten to undermine American sovereignty, self-governance, and independence.
Photo “World Health Organization” by United States Mission Geneva. CC BY-ND 2.0.






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