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The WHO pandemic treaty: dead but not buried

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus remained confident that a deal would be reached. Credit: Getty

Original Article

As the World Health Assembly began this week in Geneva, it was announced that member states had failed to reach agreement on a new, legally binding pandemic treaty.

Despite not reaching the deadline after more than two years of negotiations, the WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, remained confident that the 194 member states would eventually reach an agreement, perhaps in six to 12 months. Health diplomats are also confident that amendments to the 2005 International Health Regulations (IHR) — a parallel set of global governance rules, including a new tiered system to declare a pandemic — will go ahead this week. We will have to wait and see.

Front and centre in the failure of the treaty this week were disputes between the Global North and South regarding pathogen sharing and access to the new tests, treatments and vaccines that would be developed by the pharmaceutical industry in the event of a new pandemic. This rekindled longstanding neocolonial sentiments, especially among African countries, concerned that access to pharmaceutical products would be dependent on fulfilling treaty obligations.

Recent analyses have also shown that, to meet basic targets of the treaty, developing countries would need to heavily invest in pandemic preparedness and response to the tune of some $31 billion per year. This level of financing would take away vital budgets from existing health systems and skewed national priorities. Is this really in the best interest of developing countries?

Other criticisms of the treaty have come from US and UK conservatives. Senate Republicans recently called for the Biden administration to reject the treaty and shift focus to “comprehensive WHO reforms that address its persistent failures without expanding its authority”. With US elections set for November, negotiators in Geneva are well aware that Donald Trump may withdraw from the WHO if elected, as he did in 2020. In the UK, Nigel Farage also came out against the treaty, expressing concern about future WHO-supported lockdowns: “The WHO can be a force for good in the world, but only if it returns to its noble principles and core objectives.”

Yet the WHO has vehemently rejected any concerns about the treaty infringing on “national sovereignty”, previously calling them “fake news, lies, and conspiracy theories”. Mainstream news outlets — from the New York Times to Reuters — have reiterated these talking points. Recent articles in Health Policy Watch called for critics, or rather “spreaders of disinformation”, to be treated like an “organised crime” network. Any legitimate criticism is unwelcome.

Those in global health leadership want bolder steps to manage the “infodemic”. But advocates of the treaty have regularly engaged in misinformation themselves. Take, for example, a recent video from former UK prime minister Gordon Brown, now WHO Ambassador for Global Health Financing. In the video, Brown makes the bold claim that “the world needs agreement on the pandemic accord” since “no one is safe anywhere until everyone is safe everywhere”. The latter statement is a perfect illustration of the propaganda tools used by governments in the name of “health” during Covid: utopian, illogical, and Orwellian.

The negotiations and media framing of them, therefore, represent the cultural ethos of biosecurity, which prioritises “making the world safer” (security) over all other values and, given our collective experiences during Covid, basic principles of logic and Western democratic norms.

The WHO is also, this week, seeking an unprecedented increase of its budget by $7 billion over four years to respond to crises. Yet the organisation has failed to conduct a serious post-mortem of the failures of the Covid pandemic response. Instead, media outlets and health authorities complain about “mistrust” and “populism” without any mention of the harms of vaccine mandates and coercive and ineffective lockdowns, school closures, mask mandates, and other Covid measures. We must march forward into a global treaty, no questions asked.

Yet this problem is now systemic in global public health. Many preeminent Covid evaluation reports are deeply flawed. A recent paper called the UK Royal Society’s assessment, published last year, “irrelevant and weak from a methodological point of view but also dangerously misleading in terms of policymaking. This is how misinformation occurs.”

Many countries, the UK and US included, are still in the process of evaluating their Covid response. Others have none planned. It seems more than reasonable that the global public health community should first be obliged to take a serious, evidence-based look at just how wrong the experts got it from 2020-22. But to do that, we need the WHO to be less concerned about fighting “conspiracy theorists” and “far-Right nationalists” and more concerned about earning back the trust of the world’s public. It will be a long road ahead.

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