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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 called 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”. The petition closed in November 2022 with 156,086 signatures, and was debated in Parliament on 17 April 2023.

This briefing will give an overview of the key background, progress, and developments of the treaty as of 1 June 2023. This June 2023 update includes further information on the parrallel amendments being made to the International Health Regulations.

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

On 27 May 2022, the Government responded to the Parliamentary petition, stating that it supported a new legally-binding instrument “as part of a cooperative and comprehensive approach to pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.”

The UK’s position on the exact substance of the treaty remains to be seen as negotiations continue.

What does the Treaty say?

Zero Draft of the treaty, known as the Zero Draft of WHO CA+, was published on 1 February 2023, and discussed at the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body’s fourth meeting between 27 February 2023 and 3 March 2023.

Because the Zero Draft is the starting point for negotiations, the substantive provisions and content of the treaty could change. But the general structure and broad issues the treaty is likely to address are more likely to remain. 

Currently, the parties are negotiating on issues such as:

  • The definition, means, and procedure for declaring a pandemic, and what this actually means in practice for states.
  • How the treaty would work alongside the International Health Regulations.
  • Key international principles that will guide the treaty, such as human rights, sovereignty, equity, solidarity, transparency, accountability and more.
  • How to achieve equity in the global supply chain for pandemic-related products, and access to relevant technologies.
  • Strengthening the resilience and responsiveness of health systems.
  • How states and the WHO should be coordinating and cooperating in pandemic preparedness and response.
  • How to finance pandemic preparedness and response initiatives.
  • Setting up a new Governing Body for the treaty – a COP or Conference of the Parties.
  • Other general legal issues relating to the treaty, such as amendments, withdrawal, and dispute settlement.

Key dates moving forward

According to the WHO, the following are key recent developments and updates in the progress of the treaty.

  • The INB hosted its fifth meeting in April 2023.
  • The INB will delivered a progress report to the 76th World Health Assembly in May 2023.
  • By late May / early June, the first draft of the WHO CA+ will be distributed to Member States.
  • A INB Drafting Group will meet in June 2023.
  • The INB will host its sixth meeting in July 2023.
  • Further meetings or drafting group sessions could be held in September, November, and December 2023
  • The INB will submit its outcome for consideration by the 77th World Health Assembly in May 2024.

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