WHO publishes zero-draft of pandemic treaty: Equity, IPR take centre stage

Many believe draft unlikely to survive in current form due to Big Pharma, particularly in EU
The zero-draft of the pandemic treaty was established based on recognising the “catastrophic failure of the international community in showing solidarity and equity in response to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.” Photo: iStock
The zero-draft of the pandemic treaty was established based on recognising the “catastrophic failure of the international community in showing solidarity and equity in response to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.” Photo: iStock

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Intergovernmental Negotiating Body (INB) published a ‘zero-draft’ of the pandemic treaty on February 1. With this, negotiations will officially begin on what the final document, due to be presented at the World Health Assembly in 2024, will entail for global- and national-level pandemic preparedness

Experts closely observing the developments have lauded the importance given to intellectual property rights, transparency, benefit sharing and equity. However, it remains to be seen what version of these issues will eventually find its place in the final draft of the pandemic treaty

The inclusion of an independent monitoring mechanism to ensure countries comply with the treaty, on the other hand, continues to remain missing, despite several commentaries on the conceptual zero-draft from health policy watchers across the globe. 

The zero-draft of the pandemic treaty was established based on recognising the “catastrophic failure of the international community in showing solidarity and equity in response to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.”

“This text contains measures to provide everyone, everywhere, with access to the tools needed to prevent and combat pandemics,” Mohga Kamal-Yanni, policy co-lead for the People’s Vaccine Alliance, noted in a statement on February 1, 2023, terming the draft as hopeful. 

Particularly from a developing country’s perspective, the draft noted “common but differentiated responsibilities and capabilities in pandemic prevention, preparedness, response and recovery of health systems” as one of its guiding principles.

This was among India’s several proposed amendments to the International Health Regulations, Down To Earth had reported earlier.

This draft marks a powerful recognition that pandemic response cannot succeed in charity, rather it requires global solidarity, James Cole, advocacy manager at STOPAIDS — a United Kingdom-based network working on human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) — said in a February 1 statement.

“Low- and middle-income Member States must stand firm through negotiations and ensure that rich nations do not dilute the text in the interests of private profits,” Cole added.

As per this draft, if and when a pandemic occurs, parties must “take appropriate measures to support time-bound waivers of intellectual property rights that can accelerate or scale up manufacturing of pandemic-related products.”

The draft strengthens this point by defining what a pandemic means and constituting a time-bound response. 

As per the document, an outbreak is considered a pandemic when an infection spreads quickly globally — with high morbidity and mortality. 

Other factors are — infecting immunologically naive human populations, pushing health systems to their capacity and beyond, and triggering social and economic disruptions, where mitigation measures require coordinated efforts across the geographical spectrum. 

However, many believe the draft “is unlikely to survive in its current form given the strong pharmaceutical lobby, particularly in the European Union,” the news website Health Policy Watch reported.

The constitution of a Pathogen Access and Benefit-Sharing system (PABS) under the WHO is another key element of the draft. Genomic sequences of all pathogens with pandemic potential — and the benefits that come with such information — are to be shared on an “equal footing” in the system. 

The information is to be shared on a publicly accessible platform and in a time-bound manner.

To ensure fair and equitable benefit-sharing, the draft details 20 per cent access for the WHO to pandemic-related products, including diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics. Here, 10 per cent each will be designated for donation and sale at affordable prices, respectively. 

The WHO Global Pandemic Supply Chain and Logistics Network, detailed in the draft, has been touted as an “excellent starting point” by health policy analyst Samantha Rick in her Twitter analysis.

“An independent central coordinating body for decisions on pandemic tools allocation & distribution mechanisms is needed to avoid trying to come up with an agreement in the midst of an emergency situation,” Rick argues. 

The draft also stresses the need to strengthen health systems to help realise the goal of universal health coverage.

In addressing gender disparities in the healthcare workforce, the draft aims to “ensure meaningful representation, engagement, participation and empowerment of all health and care workers” by stressing equal pay and addressing barriers specific to women in taking leadership roles. 

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