COVID-19 Shows Why the World Needs a Pandemic Agreement

Today marks four years since I said the global outbreak of COVID-19 could be characterized as a pandemic.

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My decision to use the “p-word” was not one I took lightly. Pandemic is a powerful word, evoking fear linked to plagues and pandemics throughout history that have claimed millions of lives and caused severe disruption to societies and economies—as COVID-19 did.

Many of WHO’s critics have pointed to my use of “pandemic” on March 11, 2020 as evidence that WHO was “late” in taking the threat of COVID-19 seriously. By that stage, more than 118,000 cases had been reported in 114 countries, and more than 4,000 deaths. The horse had bolted.

However, the far more significant date was January 30, 2020, six weeks earlier, when I declared a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC)—the highest level of alarm under the International Health Regulations (IHR), an instrument of international law designed to govern the response to global health emergencies. At that time, fewer than 100 cases, and no deaths, had been reported outside China.

A PHEIC has legal and technical meaning; “pandemic” does not—it’s a descriptor, rather than a technical designation.

I declared an end to COVID-19 as a PHEIC on May 5 of last year. Although the crisis has passed, the threat has not. The virus is still circulating, still changing, and still killing.

As countries learn to manage COVID-19 alongside other disease threats, and continue to grapple with the complications of Long COVID, they must also learn the painful lessons of COVID-19, and take corrective action to address deficiencies in the IHR and gaps in global health security that the pandemic exposed.

History teaches us that the next pandemic is not a matter of if, but when. It may be in our lifetime; it may not come for another 100 years or more. But it will come. And as things stand, the world remains unprepared.

Read More: Experts Can’t Agree Whether We’re Still in a Pandemic

That’s not to say nothing has been done. In the past two years, WHO, our Member States, and partners have established several initiatives to detect outbreaks earlier, strengthen sharing of biological samples and sequences, expand regional manufacturing of vaccines and other tools, improve equitable access to medical countermeasures, and strengthen financing of national preparedness and response capacities, especially in lower-income countries.

But there is still one key missing ingredient: an agreed framework between countries on how they will work together to counter the threat of a future pandemic.

The lack of coordination and cooperation between countries was one of the greatest failings of the global response to COVID-19. Countries became competitors, rather than cooperators, especially in seeking access to vaccines.

While the development of multiple safe and effective vaccines in such rapid time was an unprecedented triumph of science, before a single jab reached an arm, high-income countries had used their financial muscle to pre-order most of the world’s supply—often ordering more than they might ever need—leaving lower-income countries behind, waiting for scraps.

Of course, every sovereign government is responsible for protecting its people. But in a pandemic, no country can truly protect itself without working with other countries—especially those with the least financial, technical, or political capital—to ensure they too are protected. A global threat demands a global coordinated response.

Countries have recognized that, which is why they decided to strengthen the IHR and, in December 2021, to develop an international agreement on pandemic preparedness and response—a legally-binding generational pact to work together to keep themselves and each other safe.

They set themselves a deadline of completing the agreement and the IHR amendments in time for adoption at the World Health Assembly in May 2024. That’s now just 10 weeks away.

Read More: Is There a ‘COVID’ Season Yet?

Countries are making good progress, and have agreed on significant elements of the draft agreement, although there are still some issues which require further negotiation. I remain confident they can and will find common ground.

A more pernicious problem is the avalanche of lies, fake news, and conspiracy theories about the pandemic agreement that are propagating on social and traditional media.

Just as the response to the pandemic itself was hampered by mis- and disinformation, so the agreement’s negotiators are operating amid a frenzy of falsehoods: That the agreement is a power grab by WHO; that it will give WHO power to impose lockdowns or vaccine mandates on countries; or that it’s an attack on freedom.

These claims are completely false. WHO does not have, and has never had, the power to impose anything on anyone. We don’t want that power, and we’re not trying to get it.

The agreement is being written by countries, for countries, and will be implemented in countries in accordance with their own national laws. No country will be signing away its sovereignty to WHO. Why would it?

Legally-binding international agreements are not new. They are a tool that countries have used often since the end of the Second World War to meet common threats with a common response: the Geneva Conventions; the UN Charter; the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; the Paris Agreement; the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control; and the WHO Constitution, to name a few.

All are binding agreements in international law, and none give UN staff, including me, power to dictate to sovereign states.

In his classic novel La Peste, Albert Camus wrote, “There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”

As the generation that lived through the COVID-19 crisis, we have a collective responsibility to protect future generations from the suffering we endured.

Because pathogens have no regard for the lines humans draw on maps, nor for the color of our politics, the size of our economies, or the strength of our militaries.

For everything that makes us different, we are one humanity, the same species, sharing the same DNA and the same planet.

We have no future but a common future.

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