1828 DEBATE: Do we need a global treaty to protect us from future pandemics?

Martin McKee and Barney Trimble

March 30, 2021

Martin McKee, Prof. of European Public Health at LSHTM and Director of Research Policy at the European Observatory argues YES

It is a cliché that microorganisms do not respect borders. In the past 12 months, a lethal virus has spread across the world, killing millions and doing untold economic damage. Yet although this is a global threat, the responses have mostly taken place within national borders. We already do have International Health Regulations, but it is now clear that they are not enough. World leaders have joined the call for a new International Pandemic Treaty.

Such a treaty would have at least two purposes. First, it would provide a legal basis for collective action, overcoming practical barriers to sharing of expertise, information, and resources. It would accept that no one is protected until everyone is protected. It would provide a framework for greater collaboration in the development of new treatments and vaccines, and would support the development of manufacturing facilities that could provide the capacity that the world needs. In this respect, it would be a way of oiling the wheels to facilitate the international collaboration that everybody agrees is necessary.

But second, and perhaps most important, it would provide a means of dealing with the situation in which a political leader, for whatever reason, fails to act to combat the pandemic. Obviously, this is a matter of concern for his or her population. But it is also a problem for neighbouring countries and those connected through global trade routes. Can the international community stand back and leave the country as an incubator of infection that will continue to spread beyond its borders?

Inevitably, some will raise questions of national sovereignty. Yet we already recognise that the international community can, and in some circumstances must, act when governments pose a threat to their own or to other people. The most extreme example is the Genocide Convention, where the international community has a responsibility to protect the victims. There are also international laws and treaties on chemical weapons and nuclear proliferation.

This will not be the last pandemic and we must be better prepared for the next one. We should heed the call of the political leaders who have spoken out.

Barney Trimble, former researcher for Initiative for Free Trade, argues NO

A global treaty to protect us from pandemics sounds great. It shows we are “doing something” and “learning our lessons”. However, such a treaty would not have prevented Coronavirus’ spread and it will not prevent the next pandemic’s spread. Successes and failures in the fight against Covid have fundamentally  been dictated by the response of national governments and populations, not overarching systems.

According to the 2019 Global Health Index Survey, the UK and the US were the nations best prepared for a pandemic, with Europe the most prepared continent.  The past year has told a different story. Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam are three stand-out examples: despite a combined population of over 125 million, they have tallied only 75 Covid-related deaths.

To understand why, let us look at a predecessor to Covid: SARS-CoV. All three countries were among the worst hit by the 2002-2004 outbreak, recording 111 deaths out of 811 globally. When Covid came, they knew what was at stake. Governments were swift and firm in their actions; the public understood, supported, and followed them.

In contrast, Western governments prioritised the fear of appearing authoritarian over that of the virus. They dithered and pulled their punches, encouraged by a public not wanting to imagine that it could really be that bad. No future Western government will have such reservations: the lessons have been learnt by the public as much as they have by politicians.

A global treaty seems like it would be solidifying such lessons; but what will it achieve? Like most international treaties, it will be watered down to avoid any commitment of resources and remain unsigned by key players. Yet that sense of having “done something” risks breeding complacency even if we are no better prepared. Covid has shown just how deadly complacency can be.

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