Coronavirus: World Health Organization calls for treaty to shield against next pandemic

  • Nations should learn from Covid-19 and learn to be more prepared, officials say
  • WHO’s director-general said the new Omicron variant is a reminder that while we may think we’re done with the virus, the virus isn’t done with us
Agence France-Presse |

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Members of the public wait in line at a temporary Covid-19 testing station outside Seoul City Hall in Seoul, South Korea, on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. Amid the increase in critically-ill patients and concerns about the new variant, the country plans to roll out booster shots more quickly. Photo: Bloomberg

The world must study the wreckage of Covid-19 and say “never again” by striking a pandemic preparedness treaty, the World Health Organization said on Monday, as countries gathered to build the foundations of a new accord.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said another disastrous pandemic was bound to happen unless countries showed the resolve to strengthen global defences.

Nations are meeting in Geneva from Monday to Wednesday to discuss an international agreement setting out how to handle the next pandemic – which experts fear is only a matter of time.

What we know about the Omicron variant so far

The gathering comes as the planet is still besieged by Covid-19, nearly two years on from the first cases recorded in China, and now shaken by Omicron, the new Covid variant of concern.

WHO member states reached a consensus on Sunday to kick start the process towards a pandemic treaty.

The draft decision was secured after countries agreed to compromise, notably the United States, which is lukewarm on whether the outcome needs to be a legally-binding treaty.

The decision is expected to be formalised on Wednesday.

“The emergence of the highly-mutated Omicron variant underlines just how perilous and precarious our situation is,” Tedros told world leaders at the start of the three-day gathering.

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“Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics.”

“Omicron’s very emergence is another reminder that although many of us might think we’re done with Covid-19, it’s not done with us,” he said. “It will all happen again unless you, the nations of the world, can come together to say with one voice: never again.”

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, seen here in October, warned that the Omicron variant of the coronavirus poses a high global risk. Photo: AFP via Getty Images/TNS

This meeting of the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s decision-making body comprising of all 194 member states, is an unprecedented special session on how to handle the next pandemic.

It should thrash out how far countries are prepared to go towards legally-binding commitments on issues like equitable vaccine distribution, knowledge-sharing, financing and oversight structures, with any final deal due to come into force in 2024.

A key issue down the line could be whether countries want beefed-up powers for the WHO to investigate the sources of outbreaks. Tedros said the lack of data-sharing early in the Covid pandemic had been a hindrance.

“One of the expectations of this treaty is to be able to improve the WHO’s capacity to monitor and assess the situation in countries: the investigative power of WHO,” a French diplomatic source said.

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera said the world was unprepared for Covid-19 and “for that weakness, we all paid a great price.”

“Steps must be taken to ensure that this will not happen again, that when the next pandemic comes, and it will come, it will find us better prepared,” he said.

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