Statement on ongoing negotiations on pandemic preparedness and international health emergencies at the World Health Assembly

May 30th, 2024

Published: May 30th, 2024

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause global social and economic devastation. To date, according to official reports the pandemic has claimed more than 7 million lives, has seen a new global cohort of people emerge who are living with the limitations of long covid, has set back years of hard-fought progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and wiped more than $2 trillion from the global economy. Across all corners of the globe, the impacts of the pandemic continue to be felt across many aspects of daily life.

In late 2021, the world began negotiations on two key mechanisms to help prevent the same devastation from occurring again: (1) a proposed international pandemic agreement (more commonly known as the ‘pandemic treaty’), and (2) proposed amendments to the International Health Regulations (2005) – currently the world’s foremost legal framework for preventing and controlling the international spread of disease. These processes set out to ensure that lessons were learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and that the world would be better prepared and coordinated to prevent, respond to, and contain future outbreaks – in particular via a more equitable approach to access diagnostics, vaccines and treatments; the reality which was not achieved during the COVID-19 response.

The Australian Global Health Alliance remains firmly supportive of both mechanisms, which were to be presented this week at the 77th World Health Assembly (WHA) this week for adoption. At the time of writing, many States had expressed a desire to complete and adopt improved IHR by the end of the World Health Assembly to respond to future emergencies. We are, however, disappointed to learn that the pandemic treaty failed to reach the necessary level of consensus prior and will not be considered for adoption at this week’s Assembly. Instead, discussions this week will be made on the process towards achieving an agreement – perhaps to be adopted at next year’s Assembly, or at a rare special session of the WHA to be held at a later date.

This is a missed opportunity for action now. The next pandemic threat won’t wait, and if we do not learn from the devastation of COVID-19, we risk history repeating itself. Equitable access to knowledge, non-pharmaceutical measures (such as high quality masks and oxygen), and pharmaceutical measures (vaccines and therapies) is a bare minimum requirement. Anything short of this is not only deeply unethical, it hinders an effective response.

Pandemic prevention and preparedness requires clear leadership and strong coordination at all levels and an unwavering commitment of the member states towards health equity. It must also be backed by sufficient finances to ensure that a strong multilateral system is resourced to achieve the necessary response. The World Health Organization (WHO) needs to play a central role.

The negotiations on both the pandemic treaty and IHR are the result of an extensive public consultation process reflecting diverse perspectives and knowledge of the global community. The Alliance itself hosted forums for our membership to feed into the consultation process directly, and have engaged regularly with the Australian Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Health and Aged Care.

We are aware of efforts to deliberately spread misinformation about possible consequences of these mechanisms, including claims that they would undermine national sovereignty. This is untrue. It is national governments themselves who are negotiating this agreement, and who are negotiating on the basis that the agreement will advance the health of all citizens. Moreover, it will not grant the World Health Organization any powers that interfere with a country’s domestic laws or policies.

We are grateful to member countries for working hard to get to this point. The Alliance will continue to support these efforts. It is crucial that a sense of urgency and positive momentum be maintained.