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The WHO Pandemic Preparedness Treaty

In March 2021, a group of world leaders, including UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, announced an initiative for a new treaty on pandemic preparedness and response. This initiative was taken to the World Health Organization (WHO) and will be negotiated, drafted, and debated by a newly-established Intergovernmental Negotiation Body.

A petition on the UK Parliament website is calling for the Government “to commit to not signing any international treaty on pandemic prevention and preparedness established by the WHO, unless this is approved through a public referendum”. At the time of writing, it had gathered over 120,000 signatures.

This briefing will give an overview of the key background, progress, and developments of the treaty as of May 2022.

What is the WHO?

The World Health Organization (WHO) is the United Nations agency “that connects nations, partners and people to promote health, keep the world safe and serve the vulnerable – so everyone, everywhere can attain the highest level of health”.

The WHO Constitution was signed in July 1946 by representatives of 61 States and entered into force on 7 April 1948.

What is being proposed?

In the March 2021 joint article, the group of leaders said:

The main goal of this treaty would be to foster an all of government and all of society approach, strengthening national, regional and global capacities and resilience to future pandemics. This includes greatly enhancing international co-operation 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.

The article acknowledges existing provision for a coordinated international response under the International Health Regulations, which would “underpin such a treaty”.

In October 2021, the Working Group on Strengthening WHO Preparedness for and Response to Health Emergencies (WGPR) published a ‘zero draft’ report outlining an assessment of the benefits of a new WHO convention, agreement or other international instrument on pandemic preparedness and response, for consideration by the World Health Assembly. This Report, among other things, suggested that such an initiative “could include promoting high-level political commitment and whole-of-government whole-of-society approaches, addressing equity, enhancing the One Health approach, and strengthening health systems and their resilience.”

On 29 November – 1 December 2021, the WHO’s World Health Assembly (WHA) met in a special session to discuss the proposal and the way forward. This was only the second ever special session of its kind in the history of the Assembly.

In this session, the WHA agreed to establish an Intergovernmental Negotiating Body to draft and negotiate “a WHO convention, agreement, or other international instrument on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.”

Does the UK support the treaty?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson was a signatory to the article proposing the treaty initially. The UK’s position on the substance of the treaty remains to be seen, once a draft has been completed.

Key dates moving forward

According to the WHO, the following are key dates in the progress of the treaty.

  • The INB will host its second round of public consultation hearings on 16-17 June 2022.
  • The INB will meet by 1 August 2022 to discuss and consider a working draft treaty.
  • The INB will deliver a progress report to the 76th World Health Assembly in 2023.
  • The INB will submit its outcome for consideration by the 77th World Health Assembly in 2024.

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