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WHO's push for new pandemic treaty stokes fears of global governance

Proponents of accord argue it's crucial to fight pandemics; critics counter such a measure will lead to coercive, one-size-fits-all rules and undermine national sovereignty.

Published: March 16, 2022 9:49pm

Updated: March 17, 2022 10:10pm

Negotiations have begun to establish a globally binding agreement to combat future pandemics, raising concerns that such an accord would undermine national sovereignty and centralize too much power in the hands of the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations' health agency.

In a recent open letter, the World Council for Health, a coalition of scientists, doctors, lawyers, and civil society advocacy organizations, lambasted the idea as dangerous and illegitimate.

"The proposed WHO agreement is unnecessary, and is a threat to sovereignty and inalienable rights," the council wrote. "It increases the WHO's suffocating power to declare unjustified pandemics, impose dehumanizing lockdowns, and enforce expensive, unsafe, and ineffective treatments against the will of the people."

Prominent health experts such as Drs. Pierre Kory and Astrid Stuckelberger have endorsed the council's open letter and been outspoken against the treaty under discussion.

The agreement would effectively create one world government under the guise of creating a standardized global pandemic response, according to Stuckelberger, a member of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Geneva and Lausanne.

"This pandemic committee wants everything in a standardized way," she said. "One health, one government, one emergency all the time."

Stuckelberger noted the WHO constitution gives it broad authority to adopt global regulations concerning standards and procedures to prevent the spread of disease, including quarantine and certain pharmaceutical requirements.

Others argue a pandemic treaty can address the holes exposed by the world's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"If the world was able to pass a strong pandemic treaty, it would turn a crisis into an opportunity — a historic, once in a lifetime opportunity," said Georgetown University Professor of Global Health Law Lawrence Gostin in an interview. "We're attempting to solve all the major gaps in pandemic response."

Gostin and other supporters of such a new, "transformative" agreement note pandemics don't recognize borders and argue the only way to fight them effectively is for the world to collaborate in better ways.

WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has criticized nations for adopting "'me-first' approaches that stymie the global solidarity needed to deal with a global threat," referring to COVID-19.

In a recent article, Gostin similarly condemned "nationalistic leaders" for "taking a stance of 'my country first.'"

The treaty they're pushing is expected to include measures to improve information sharing between countries.

Gostin, who is director of the WHO's Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law, added the treaty would require prompt reporting of outbreaks (which China came under fire for not doing with COVID-19), mandate investigations into the origins of outbreaks; and "try to embed equity in the pandemic response so we won't have huge disparities in vaccine distribution between rich and poor."

Skeptics worry an agreement could require countries to send a certain amount of its vaccines abroad, arguing it's fine to share surplus vaccines but the priority must be helping a country's own people first.

Others are concerned the treaty could supersede certain state and national laws and possibly require some form of health passports or digital IDs.

However, at this point there's no actual document with specific items to be included in the agreement. The treaty is an idea being negotiated, and it's unclear what a preliminary — let alone final — version would look like.

"The devil is in the details," said Dr. Jeffrey Singer, a practicing general surgeon and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. "If the treaty involves cooperation between countries working together, especially sharing information, that's a good thing. If it involves everyone having to listen to a central authority, that's not a good thing."

Noting that in the U.S. the concentration of power in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) "led to mistakes," Singer argued that big organizations should just focus on updating health experts around the world with the latest good information.

"When you have distant organizations trying to control things, there are always unintended consequences," he said. "Pandemics act differently in different communities. The WHO's main role should be information, and let us use that information as we need to locally."

A major complaint of those opposed to the treaty idea is that it will give the WHO greater authority to declare a pandemic using a looser definition, forcing countries to impose certain restrictions in a uniform, global manner.

"Historically, the WHO leadership has failed the people," wrote the World Council for Health in its open letter. "Among many examples, it approved the injurious H1N1 (swine flu) vaccine for a controversially declared pandemic. Equally, the WHO failed during the Covid-19 chapter as it encouraged lockdowns, suppressed early preventive treatments, and recommended product interventions that have proven to be neither safe nor effective."

"The WHO cannot be allowed to control the world's health agenda," the letter continued.

On the other hand, University of Virginia law professor Margaret Riley, who teaches health law, noted that "done well, a treaty of this sort might help the WHO be more effective."

Critics, including Republican lawmakers in the U.S, have scrutinized the WHO for being under China's influence.

Whatever the treaty contains, one major issue for supporters is how to enforce compliance.

"Unless such a treaty includes mechanisms for real cooperation among major powers, it is unlikely to have a significant effect," said Riley. "But it is a start."

Gostin added that "we're going to have to find better ways to get compliance, including incentives."

In December, the 194 member countries of the World Health Assembly, the WHO's decision-making body, agreed to "kickstart a global process to draft and negotiate a convention, agreement, or other international instrument under the Constitution of the World Health Organization to strengthen pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response."

The decision established an intergovernmental negotiating body to draft what both supporters and opponents of the idea are calling an international "pandemic treaty."

Negotiations for the treaty began last month, and the next meeting will be held by August to discuss progress on a working draft. The goal is to deliver a progress report to the World Health Assembly in 2023 and adopt the agreement by 2024.

Earlier this month, the Council of the European Union authorized the opening of negotiations for a global pandemic treaty, signaling the E.U.'s support for the initiative.

The U.S. will take part in the talks and has expressed support for them, but has signaled it will oppose a legally binding treaty with the force of international law. India and Brazil have also expressed concerns.

The White House and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is run by Dr. Anthony Fauci, didn't respond to requests for comment.

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