A draft WHO pandemic agreement, which is expected to be approved by the 194 member states of the UN health agency, will require companies to disclose the terms of all public contracts. [L1N32D1U4]
It argues that government funding for vaccine and treatment development should be more transparent and include provisions to ensure that the resulting products are evenly distributed around the world.
The purpose of the pact, commonly known as the Pandemic Convention, is to prevent the next pandemic from being as devastating as COVID-19 and to improve the global response that has failed many of the world’s poorest countries.
During the pandemic, many deals governments have made with drug companies have been kept confidential, leaving them with little ability to hold drug makers accountable.
A WHO spokesman said that it is member states that are driving the current process towards a new agreement.
“The process is open, transparent and with input from other stakeholders, including all interested stakeholders and the public, who can comment during public hearings.”
The agreement is at an early stage and is likely to change during negotiations with Member States and other stakeholders. The draft will be presented to them in full at a meeting on Friday, after being circulated earlier this week.
The document is vague about what happens if countries that sign the treaty do not play by the rules and if companies do not play by the rules. The UN agency cannot force companies to comply with the rules.
The proposal could also face opposition from the pharmaceutical industry following its rapid development of vaccines and treatments crucial to fighting the virus that has killed more than 6.5 million people worldwide.
Pfizer and its partners BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca have been testing, developing and launching vaccines less than a year after the virus first appeared in China in December 2019.
Thomas Cueni, Director General, International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), said the draft was a “significant milestone”, but added that it was important not to undermine how pharmaceutical companies innovate and their protection of intellectual property (IE ).
The draft recognizes the importance of intellectual property but says there must be better mechanisms to share expertise so more companies can produce vaccines and medicines during a crisis.
“If implemented in its current form, the draft would most likely undermine, rather than facilitate, our collective ability to rapidly develop and scale up countermeasures and ensure equal access to them,” Cueni added.
The draft paper also proposes a peer review mechanism to assess countries’ preparedness in the event of a pandemic, as well as better universal health coverage, more domestic funding for pandemic prevention and response, and better access for WHO to understand the origins of disease, investigate outbreaks .
Lawrence Gostin, a law professor at Georgetown in Washington DC who follows the WHO, said the deal could be a bottom line and remedy the “unscrupulous” hoarding of vaccines during COVID-19.
“The design is indeed far-reaching and daring – the obstacles, however, are political opposition and industry backlash,” he said.
The treaty has been described by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as a unique opportunity to strengthen global health rules.
The UN agency’s constitution gives it considerable powers to conclude international agreements, but it has done so only once in its 74-year history, in the form of the 2005 Tobacco Convention.
Negotiations on the pact began in February, and a major step was taken in July when the countries agreed to make the new agreement legally binding, despite earlier objections from Washington. The next formal board meeting is in December, but there is still a long way to go: the agreement is expected to be approved in 2024 at the earliest.
“Some of the upcoming discussions will be awkward,” said a Western diplomat, referring to issues of intellectual property rights and price transparency.
But they said some major powers are genuinely interested in a deal. “There is a willingness to explore the problems, even the difficult ones.”