The 194 member states of the United Nations Health Organization have adopted a legally binding agreement aimed at strengthening the world’s defenses against new pathogens in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new agreement, known as the Pandemic Convention, was a priority for WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said it would help ensure the world does not return to the “old cycle of panic and neglect across generations.” The target date for implementation is May 2024.
The Pandemic Convention will complement the International Health Regulations, which were enacted in 2005 to set out national obligations when a public health event may cross national borders. While the International Health Regulations are still considered adequate for regional epidemics such as Ebola, they were found to be insufficient for a global pandemic like COVID-19.
The proposed Pandemic Convention has drawn criticism on social media, mostly from the right, which warns that it could lead to countries handing over powers to the WHO. However, the agency has stressed that the government is leading the negotiations and has the freedom to reject the deal.
The European Union, which proposed the Pandemic Convention, is considered its biggest supporter. Developing countries, especially in Africa, are keen to use the negotiations to ensure better access to vaccines. The latest draft of the Pandemic Convention has been finalized after five rounds of formal negotiations. However, with so many member states involved, securing an agreement may be difficult.
It is not yet clear how the 2005 regulations and the new pandemic pact will fit together, but one suggestion is that the existing rules should be complemented. If the WHO declares a pandemic, the new rules will trigger to prevent localized spread of the disease, but the WHO is not obligated to do so at this time. It is also not yet clear what will happen if the measures are not followed.
Separate consultations are underway on reforming the 2005 rules to allow quick access. Negotiators have privately complained about the duplication of the two talks, and a joint meeting is planned to clarify the agenda. The WHO has said that China is withholding clinical data related to the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.