Infectious Cooperation: World Leaders Propose International Pandemic Treaty

April 13, 2021

3 min read

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What's going on here?

More than 20 world leaders are calling for a global treaty to safeguard against future pandemics in an attempt to bolster international cooperation.

What does this mean?

The proposal is contained within a joint letter signed by leaders including UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, and German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who warn that “nobody is safe until everyone is safe”. In the letter, leaders concede that COVID-19 has “exploited our weaknesses and divisions” but now is the time to “come together as a global community for peaceful cooperation that extends beyond this crisis”. This comes as tensions rise over international vaccine supply and worry that China is not so forthcoming about information pertaining to the origin and spread of coronavirus. 

Leaders described the pandemic as “the biggest challenge to the global community since the 1940s”. The proposed treaty would be akin to the UN Charter 1945 which was created at the end of the Second World War to promote international cooperation and “dispel the temptations of isolationism and nationalism”. The pandemic treaty “should lead to more mutual accountability and shared responsibility, transparency and cooperation within the international system”. Dr David Nabarro, a special coronavirus envoy for the World Health Organisation (WHO), said that in the absence of “special action”, the world would not be fully vaccinated “until well into 2022”.

What's the big picture effect?

This is not the first time leaders have called for international cooperation relating to the response against coronavirus and future pandemics. November 2020 saw the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, say that a pandemic treaty would allow the international community to “act more quickly and in a coordinated way”. In February 2021, Mr Johnson proposed a more global and collaborative approach to the G7 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK and US) and it now seems to be picking up some much needed momentum. Such a treaty would allow for improved global surveillance of future pandemic risks via enhanced cooperation between research centres and could see more organised international funding. This could also see the development of a better alert system due to increased international data sharing. The proposed treaty would likely take the form of a framework convention under the auspice of the WHO. The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (2003), which turned “public health functions into legally binding obligations”, is being discussed as a potential model for the pandemic treaty. 

However, the proposal is not without its issues. One issue is that the International Health Regulations (IHR) already exist as a legal framework for states to follow in times of global public health emergencies. The IHR already outlines what states must do to detect, prevent and respond to potential outbreaks. Clare Wenham, professor of global health policy at the London School of Economics, highlighted that many governments “chose to abandon the law” and “go it alone” during the heights of the pandemic. If the pandemic treaty were to be meaningful it would require states to “cede a significant portion of their sovereignty” to the WHO. It is difficult to imagine that all states would be so willing in giving away control and the absence of the US and China from the joint letter of leaders is already indicating potential conflict of interests. Ms Wenham emphasised that proposing a treaty is the “easy part” while negotiating it is the “hard” part. Overall, in theory, the proposal of a pandemic treaty is promising. However, in practice “there is no way of guaranteeing that governments would abide by it” and negotiating the treaty between states will involve an immense uphill political battle. 

Report written by Dan Furniss

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