10 May 2024, 10:52

Pandemic agreement talks go to the wire

GENEVA, May 10, 2024 (BSS/AFP) - Hectic last-ditch talks aimed at striking a
landmark global agreement on handling future pandemics rolled into the final
day on Friday with a deal still up in the air.

Two years of work on drafting an international accord on pandemic prevention,
preparedness and response are coming to the crunch, with just hours left to
find a consensus.

In December 2021, the raw pain of Covid-19 -- which killed millions, shredded
economies and crippled health systems -- motivated countries to seek a
binding framework of commitments aimed at preventing another such disaster.

However, big differences quickly emerged on how to go about it -- fractures
which still had not been healed going into Friday.

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus voiced optimism
that the talks would prove successful and conclude an agreement ready to be
formally adopted at the annual gathering of WHO member countries, which runs
from May 27 to June 1.

"I am encouraged that all 194 member states are strongly committed to
finalising the agreement in time for the World Health Assembly," he said on

"They are working long hours to find common ground, in good faith, for the
people of the world."

- Rush to the finish line -

Fuelled by trolleys full of coffee, bananas, biscuits and sandwiches,
negotiators have been pulling 12-hour days since April 29 to try and find a
way through.

The additional fortnight of talks -- the process was meant to finish in March
-- are being held behind closed doors at the WHO headquarters in Geneva.

Those non-governmental organisations deemed relevant stakeholders can follow
the process outside the room and are briefed daily by the talks' co-chairs.

Such NGOs fear that any agreement concluded on Friday would be rushed, may
not change the status quo, and may even entrench some of the weaknesses
exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

While finding consensus on every article in the draft agreement would be
unlikely, countries have nonetheless invested a lot of time in the process
and want something to show for their efforts.

"We are telling them: don't be under pressure to surrender on equity because
you need to deliver an instrument," said K. M. Gopakumar, senior researcher
with the Third World Network NGO.

"We are afraid that will lead to a situation where they will be asked to
compromise just to create a photo-op" to show that the treaty has been

"That would be a betrayal of people's aspirations and people's right to

- Vaccine sharing -

The draft text proposed giving the WHO real-time access to 20 percent of the
production of pandemic-related health products, such as vaccines.

While some countries want this changed to at least 20 percent, some Western
powers are pushing for it to be up to 20 percent.

Each of the draft agreement's 37 articles is being thrashed out in turn, with
country negotiators breaking off into working groups to try to figure out a

Pedro Villardi, health equity coordinator for Public Services International,
said front-line healthcare staff needed to be properly protected in the
agreement, which should reflect their burden of exposure to risk.

Otherwise, "the workers that we represent as PSI, their lives are still going
to be on the line" in the next pandemic, he said.

Villardi said the effort required to get a reference in the agreement to the
mental health toll on front-line workers was "just unbelievable, it's

- Fault lines -

The main disputes revolve around access and equity: access to pathogens
detected within countries and to pandemic-fighting products such as vaccines
produced from that knowledge; and equitable distribution of not only counter-
pandemic tests, treatments and jabs, but also the means to produce them.

Speaking from South Africa, Lauren Paremoer of the People's Health Movement,
a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town, told reporters that Africa
had been "heavily marginalised" during the last pandemic, in terms of access
to vaccines and other medical products.

"The treaty as it stands will not correct any of that," she said, noting that
much of the language on technology transfer to developing countries was non-

"The treaty places new and very onerous (pathogen) surveillance obligations
on African countries with absolutely no clear promise that funding will be
made available," she said.

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