Countries meeting to negotiate a new international agreement on how to deal with future pandemics agreed on Thursday that it should be legally binding, the World Health Organization said.

The economic upheaval and millions of lives lost during the coronavirus crisis have sparked calls for new international protections strong enough to prevent such a disaster in the future.

In December, 194 WHO member states decided to start the process of negotiations and development of a new international document on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.

This week, the second meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Group took place in Geneva.

“The members of the INB agreed by consensus that they will work towards a new, legally binding international agreement on pandemics,” the WHO said in a statement.

“As with all international instruments, any new agreement, if and when it is agreed by member states, is drafted and agreed by the governments themselves, who will take any action according to their sovereignty.”

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus welcomed the decision, saying it would protect families and communities.

“The importance of a legally binding document cannot be overstated: it will be our collective legacy for future generations,” he said.

INB Co-Chair Precious Matsoso from South Africa added: “Today’s decision is an important first step in our important work together. But we still have many hills to climb. It is a journey that will require all of us to stick together. .”

Target in May 2024

The INB aims to provide better preparedness and a fairer response to future pandemics.

The INB will next meet in December and report on progress to the 2023 World Health Assembly, the annual meeting of WHO member states.

The countries are working to conclude the agreement in May 2024.

Hurdles that will need to be cleared until then may include how far countries are willing to go in terms of commitments on issues such as equitable vaccine distribution, knowledge sharing, financing, surveillance structures and powers to investigate outbreaks.

A key issue going forward may be whether countries want expanded WHO powers to investigate the sources of outbreaks. Tedros said the lack of data sharing at the start of the COVID pandemic was an obstacle.

Lois Pace, Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services, was in Geneva for the talks.

“The United States is ready to take part in this, in solving the problem pandemic preparedness and response. We weren’t there when it came to COVID-19 and we want to fix that,” she told reporters.

Pace said Washington is open to a mix of binding and non-binding options as part of any broader end result.

“What we prefer most … is what will work for the world,” she said, adding: “We don’t want to make empty promises that we collectively can’t or won’t keep.”

WHO calls for treaty to protect against next pandemic

© 2022 AFP

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