The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the imbalances in the global health system, so the 194 member states of the World Health Organization, which are still affected by the repercussions of the epidemic, decided to negotiate a legally binding text that would enable them to deal with the next disaster or even prevent its occurrence.
Negotiations for an international agreement to combat future pandemics are accelerating, but some observers warn that efforts are lacking to ensure equitable access to medical products needed to combat similar threats as COVID-19.
The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the imbalances in the global health system, so the 194 member states of the World Health Organization, which are still affected by the repercussions of the epidemic, decided to negotiate a legally binding text that would enable them to deal with the next disaster or even prevent its occurrence.
The process is still in its infancy with an ambitious goal, perhaps too ambitious for many observers, of reaching a final agreement by May 2024.
But critics warn that the revisions made to the document, which should serve as a basis for negotiations, weaken its scope, especially with regard to access to vaccines and other medical products, an inequality between rich and poor countries that has caused the death of countless people during the pandemic after not They receive vaccinations or even medical oxygen.
“I think it’s a step backwards,” Soiri Moon, co-director of the Center for Global Health at the University of Geneva, told AFP.
She warned that if poor countries do not give strong guarantees that they will be further protected during the next pandemic, “I think there is a real risk that countries will walk away” from the talks.
The revised text, a compilation of proposals from several member countries, was submitted to the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body office, which is responsible for guiding the negotiation process, last week.
This document identifies areas of consensus and offers various options on the most contentious issues.
For some observers, this draft, which will be revised at the next round of INC office discussions in mid-June, was “cleaner” but weaker in some key points.
Some NGOs say in particular that the reference to requiring private companies that benefit from public funds for their research and development departments to be transparent about their prices and to transfer their technology to poor countries has been omitted.
In contrast, the project in its current format encourages countries to promote knowledge sharing and transparency “in accordance with national laws and as appropriate”.
“Voluntary measures are not enough,” said Luis Villarroel, president of the NGO Innovarti, which advocates for a balanced system of intellectual property, adding that the text was “very weak”.
Likewise, Mohaga Kamal-Yani of the People’s Vaccine coalition, which fights unequal access to vaccines, considered the text “weak” in terms of practical arrangements to ensure fair access.
“COVID-19, and HIV before it, has shown that we cannot rely on the goodwill of pharmaceutical companies to ensure fair access,” the official said in a statement.
The text also contains elements that may not be appropriate for the pharmaceutical sector but are important for less affluent countries, such as the idea of linking the sharing of genetic resources for research purposes to the need for profit sharing, technology transfer or access to medicines.
The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Producers and Associations expressed concern that such a commitment might slow down the process of sharing data.
“We remain concerned that decisions we may regret may be made during a future pandemic,” union president Thomas Quiney said in a statement sent to AFP.
“The system of innovation and rapid access to pathogens has been critical in enabling the pharmaceutical industry to develop new vaccines, treatments and diagnostics in response to COVID-19,” he added.
Ultimately, one thing everyone seems to agree on is that threats of new pandemics loom on the horizon and that consensus is desperately needed to meet the May 2024 deadline.