Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 29 March 2024

The countdown to a pandemic treaty

Relevance: GS Paper I

Why in News?

The ninth Intergovernmental Negotiating Body (INB) meeting developed a revised draft of the World Health Organization (WHO) Pandemic Agreement. The final draft is due for approval at the World Health Assembly in late May. However, due to contentious debates, the agreement's fate is uncertain.

Key features of the agreement:

  • In 2021, 25 heads of government and international agencies called for a pandemic treaty to address systemic failures during the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Objective: The World Health Organization (WHO) Pandemic Agreement aims to strengthen global defences and prevent future pandemics from spiralling into catastrophic human crises.
    • The treaty addresses inequity, including country preparedness and lack of coordination at international levels.
  • Coverage: The draft negotiating text covers issues such as pathogen surveillance, healthcare workforce capacity, supply chain and logistics, tech transfer for vaccine production, diagnostic tests and treatments, and the waivers of intellectual property (IP) rights.
  • Commitments: The agreement requires countries to commit to better antimicrobial resistance management, health systems and sanitation, and universal health coverage.
  • Amendments to International Health Regulations: The International Health Regulations are being amended to require countries to report health emergencies within their borders.
  • Establishment of COP: The text emphasizes equitable access to medical products and proposes establishing the Conference of Parties (COP) to oversee the implementation of the Pandemic Agreement.
  • Legal Framework: The proposed establishment of a COP suggests that the Agreement could be a classic international treaty adopted under Article 19 of the WHO Constitution instead of the alternative Article 21 opt-out regulations.

Contrasting perspectives:

  • Developing countries have largely embraced the revised negotiating text, while developed countries have uniformly criticised it, stating that the text contains elements that are 'redlines' for them.
    • Countries like Australia, Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States have referred to the text as a 'step backwards'.
  • India, representing the South-East Asia region, has emphasised the importance of clarity on obligations and responsibilities between developed and developing countries to operationalize equity within the Agreement effectively.


  • Equity concerns:
    • The Agreement, primarily between developing countries and developed countries, aims to establish a global system for sharing pathogens and genetic codes while ensuring equitable access to research benefits, including vaccines.
      • However, developing countries are hesitant to share information on pathogen spread and evolution due to a perceived lack of return, exacerbated by "vaccine nationalism" during the COVID-19 pandemic.
    • To address this issue, the current draft of the Agreement proposes a quid pro quo mechanism, formally titled the WHO Pathogen Access and Benefit-Sharing (PABS) System, that compels countries to share genome sequence information and samples with WHO-coordinated networks and databases.
      • In return for access to these data, manufacturers of diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines will be required to provide 10% of their products free of charge and 10% at not-for-profit prices.
  • Legal obligations:
    • The current text of the provision aims to establish legal obligations on benefits-sharing for all biological materials and genetic sequence data users under PABS.
      • A robust PABS system, particularly for low- and middle- income countries, including some African nations, seems non-negotiable for promoting equity in access to medical countermeasures.
    • On the other hand, many developed countries and the pharmaceutical industry are unsatisfied with the language on access and benefit sharing in the current negotiating text, including the perceived trade-offs.
    • The existing International Health Regulations are already legally binding.
      • However, they failed to prevent unjust travel or trade restrictions and hoarding of vaccines and other medical countermeasures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Governance and Enforcement issues:
    • Global governance, enforcement, and accountability challenges are other major sticking points of the agreement negotiations.
    • Without adequate accountability and enforcement mechanisms built into the Agreement, the whole endeavour is merely an exercise in symbolism.
    • The absence of adequate enforcement capabilities also hampers coordination efforts for pandemic countermeasure stockpiles, the deployment of international medical response teams, and monitoring and data sharing.
  • Reaching consensus:
    • The Agreement risks being rendered ineffective even if the Global North was to reach a consensus on key issues, such as technology transfer, the PABS System, and intellectual property waivers, without robust enforcement mechanisms.
    • The negotiating text includes proposals for a decision-making body comprising the COP and a secretariat. However, it remains uncertain whether negotiators will reach consensus on this structure.
      • This model mirrors the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) summits, where all nations receive equal voting rights.
  • Intellectual property:
    • Although the draft Agreement touches upon most of the relevant concerns that unfolded during the recent pandemic, much of the language around contentious issues such as IP waivers is arguably watered down by referring to national circumstances and using best endeavour language.
    • It also requires that firms that received public financing, waive or reduce their intellectual property royalties.


The Pandemic Agreement represents a critical step towards rebuilding trust and coordination between nations. It acknowledges that no single government or institution can confront the threat of future pandemics in isolation. However, the risk of a watered-down Agreement, driven by the imperative to secure consensus, remains palpable.