Can we prevent another global pandemic?

The World Health Organization has scheduled a special meeting on November 29 to address the issue of a new pandemic prevention treaty. The current International Health Regulations have proven woefully inadequate in the face of COVID-19. Can a new treaty help prevent a future infectious disease from again creating a world of unbearable confusion, suffering and death?

Dr. William Felice was appointed Professor of Florida in 2006 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. [ UNKNOWN | Photo: Courtesy ]

COVID has verified the ways that health is global. In the 18 months after the outbreak of this deadly virus, only 14 countries, out of 195, have not reported any cases. Twelve of those 14 were from the Pacific Islands. International cooperation to contain the pandemic ceased immediately. The nations of the world have fought fiercely for the personal protective equipment and ventilators that are desperately needed. Individual countries have applied conflicting policies regarding face masks, lockdowns and social distancing. There are now more than 5 million deaths from COVID worldwide, including at least 767,000 in the United States.

During the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic and the 2009-2010 swine flu pandemic, WHO played a centralized leadership role in containing these infectious diseases. Yet after the WHO failed to provide strong leadership during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa of 2014-2015, many countries lost faith in the organization. After years of leading nations weakening the WHO, the organization was unable in 2020 to exercise the leadership needed to contain COVID.

The new international treaty on pandemics is intended to focus on early detection, prevention, equitable access to vaccines and strengthening WHO as the coordinating authority for global health. Yet the fear is that the world community will produce a treaty “without teeth”, that is, without accountability and without enforcement mechanisms.

However, building on successful examples of global enforcement mechanisms “with bite”, this new pandemic treaty could boost global cooperation in two areas: health security and health equity.

Health security: At the onset of the COVID pandemic, China delayed weeks before confirming a COVID outbreak and initially denied human-to-human transmission. WHO was powerless to independently confirm data or operate inside a country without authorization. The new pandemic treaty could create an early and verifiable warning system with data sharing and transparency between nations. Political scientists point to current nuclear and chemical weapon deproliferation treaties that establish inspection methods that could be a model for a reinvigorated WHO. Thanks to these treaties, independent scientists inspect chemical and nuclear facilities and verify their compliance. Individual nations have learned that it is in their national interest to allow these intrusive measures to protect their national security. The same methods are needed to investigate dangerous pathogens. Some nations, of course, will resist such actions. But, under this new treaty, such reluctance and sabotage could lead to global condemnation and significant pressure on these aberrant non-compliant countries.

Health equity: The UN effort for global vaccine distribution, known as COVAX, has failed in poor countries. Donations fall far behind what is needed, and pressure on drug companies to more fully share their vaccines has produced limited results. High-income countries have been criticized by the WHO for “catastrophic moral failure” in vaccine allocation. Only about 0.7 percent of vaccines went to low-income countries, while almost half went to rich countries.

The new pandemic treaty can solve this problem directly by drawing inspiration from the Paris and Glasgow agreements on climate change. These agreements provide that $ 100 billion will be collected each year from the richest countries to help poor countries mitigate and adapt to climate change. The new pandemic treaty may embrace a similar commitment to fund and distribute future drugs and vaccines for countries that are suffering. We know from former President George W. Bush’s Global Campaign to Combat the HIV / AIDS Epidemic (PEPFAR) that such resource mobilization can have a significant impact on global health. PEPFAR has provided approximately $ 90 billion in funding for the treatment and prevention of HIV / AIDS and is estimated to have saved over 20 million lives.

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Globalization has had a profound impact on many aspects of life, including health. The massive movements of people across borders – international travelers, refugees, immigrants – combined with new trade links have created new vulnerabilities in global health. As demonstrated by influenza, HIV / AIDS, Ebola, smallpox, and COVID, health risks emanating from one country can create threats and dangers for people around the world. A new pandemic treaty “with teeth” has the potential to significantly help countries collectively protect global health.

William F. Felice is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Eckerd College. He is the author of six books on human rights and international relations. He can be reached via his website at williamfelice.com.

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