The rules on how information on pathogens and genetic sequences will be shared could be determined under a proposed pandemic treaty. This is important because even though countries may share physical samples of pathogens and genetic sequence data, they could be excluded from having access to vaccines and diagnostics developed based on this information without binding commitments on benefits sharing. COVID-19 shows us, this has happened.
Leaders from more than 25 different countries have rallied behind the idea of a pandemic treaty, and want a new instrument to be negotiated under the Constitution of the World Health Organization. They hope that the World Health Assembly with 194 members of the WHO will give a mandate for negotiating a new pandemic treaty.
Ostensibly the need for better preparedness is couched in a strong language to safeguard global health security, the framing of which has been contested.
Leaders have called for a treaty to enhance “international cooperation to improve, for example, alert systems, data-sharing, research, and local, regional and global production and distribution of medical and public health counter measures, such as vaccines, medicines, diagnostics and personal protective equipment.”
But what also lies underneath, is a call for a legal mechanism that would make it binding for countries to share information, data and genomic sequences in the event of outbreaks. This is where the money is. This could potentially also risk seeding new inequalities that could result if mechanisms are not put in place to compensate countries who share information on pathogens.
The on-going discussions on pathogens-sharing in the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, overwhelming focusses on sharing information, and rarely on benefits-sharing, critics say.
Luckily, large parts of the world have already negotiated and ratified rules that govern the use of genetic resources. However, a potential pandemic treaty, if negotiated and adopted without adequate commitments on benefits-sharing, could threaten not only sovereign rights, but can supersede previously carefully negotiated balanced rules on rights of people over genetic resources, experts are of the view.
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