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What is the pandemic accord and why have negotiations been so difficult?
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What is the pandemic accord and why have negotiations been so difficult?

Global health leaders will gather in Geneva on 27 May at the annual World Health Assembly, where a new agreement for countries to work together to prepare for, prevent, and respond to pandemics – known as the “pandemic accord” – will top the agenda.

It was first proposed by world leaders in early 2021, with a promise to avoid the mistakes of the Covid-19 pandemic next time around.

The negotiating process, involving almost 200 countries, has proved challenging, and the plan has been subject to what the World Health Organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called “a torrent of fake news, lies and conspiracy theories”.

Talks are likely to go down to the wire, and a finished text may not be ready by the assembly deadline. But those involved say this is an opportunity to make the world safer – and fairer – that humanity cannot afford to miss.

What is the idea behind the accord?

The Covid-19 pandemic had a devastating impact globally. About 7 million deaths have been attributed directly to the virus, but indirect deaths are thought to be at least double that. The disruption caused by the virus saw poverty and hunger increase. Health systems were no longer able to reliably provide the regular care people needed, and people living in poorer countries were often the hardest hit.

The promise of the accord was to make sure that the world was better prepared for, and protected from, future pandemics – with equitable access to the tools needed to stop potential pandemic outbreaks in their tracks, as well as vaccines and treatments.

Announcing the plans, world leaders said a treaty would be “our legacy that protects our children and grandchildren” and promised to “be guided by solidarity, fairness, transparency, inclusiveness and equity”.

Has it worked out that way?

Many campaigners have expressed disappointment as details of the negotiations have emerged. This month, Global Justice Now accused rich countries of “refusing to learn the lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic” and of blocking moves to take on the vested interests of big pharma companies.

Others have questioned the need for a treaty at all, suggesting that it will not necessarily solve the problems that appeared during the Covid pandemic, with countries likely to ignore any elements of a treaty they disagree with during an emergency.

Dr Precious Matsoso from South Africa, the co-chair of the intergovernmental negotiating body overseeing the talks, said that progress was being made and promised “a meaningful, lasting agreement”.

And there is a sense it needs to be seen through. Michel Kazatchkine, a former member of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, said: “It is worthwhile, because it is providing a foundation. It’s highly unlikely that it will answer all of the challenges that are on the plate – but I think a failure would be really terrible for the multilateral system, for the world of solidarity that we all want to see in the future, for WHO, for the United Nations system. So we need to work very hard until the last minute to get something.”

What stage are negotiations at?

This week, negotiators have been meeting nearly every day from 9am to 9pm in a bid to finish negotiations in time for the assembly.

It follows multiple negotiating sessions that have seen draft texts put forward and pulled apart. The latest publicly available draft suggests there has been agreement in many areas, including around the need for countries to “strengthen science, public health and pandemic literacy in the population”. It includes plans to establish a “conference of the parties (Cop)” to regularly review the agreement’s implementation, and promises of additional financial resources for lower-income countries.

But there are still areas with real sticking points, including the issue of “pathogen access and benefit sharing”. If poorer countries grant richer nations – and their big pharmaceutical companies – access to materials and information on pathogens that could become a pandemic, can those poorer countries be guaranteed access to any resulting vaccines and medicines? More recent drafts of the accord have suggested such a system could be agreed in principle, but details have been pushed back for later discussion.

It is not yet clear whether the accord will be a treaty – giving it greater force in international law – or a regulation.

Does the accord take away countries’ sovereignty?

The accord has been the subject of vast amounts of misinformation and disinformation, including false claims that the agreement would give the WHO the power to impose lockdowns, or require countries to give away a fifth of their vaccines.

A WHO spokesperson responded to recent similar claims by the UK’s Nigel Farage by saying such claims were “false and have never been requested nor proposed. This agreement will not, and cannot, grant sovereignty to WHO.”

But in many countries, the discussion has become politicised and concerns about sovereignty have hit mainstream politics. This month, the UK health minister, Andrew Stephenson, told the Commons that the current text was “not acceptable” to the UK government, stressing that “protecting our sovereignty is a British red line”. In New Zealand, too, negotiators have been told to prioritise sovereignty.

The draft text of the agreement reaffirms “the principle of the sovereignty of states in addressing public health matters” and recognises “the sovereign right of states over their biological resources”.

Source: theguardian.com