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How to Save the Pandemic Treaty

As countries cavil over specific clauses in a draft pandemic treaty, there is good reason to fear that the document will be whittled down so much that it becomes useless. To ensure success, negotiators must heed the lessons of the COVID-19 crisis, and stay focused on the overarching goal: preventing or minimizing outbreaks.

LONDON – Recent drafts of a global pandemic treaty have been widely criticized as “shameful and unjust.” When the latest round of negotiations opened on March 18, it was clear that a key lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic was being ignored: public health and the health of the economy are interdependent.

Achieving both requires rewriting the rules of how health and well-being are valued, produced, and distributed – and how economies are governed. The treaty’s success will depend on member states’ willingness to hardwire equity into its terms. And that, in turn, will require a new economic paradigm. If the treaty is whittled down to become as inoffensive as possible, it will fail.

The World Health Organization Council on the Economics of Health for All, which I chaired, has already issued recommendations for how to proceed. For starters, negotiators from all countries must remain focused on the overarching goal of preventing future health threats from becoming catastrophic. That means designing the terms of the treaty – including those related to innovation, intellectual property (IP), public-private collaboration, and funding – to be mission-oriented. Equity must be the top priority, because everyone – and every economy – ultimately suffers in a pandemic if tests, vaccines, and lifesaving therapeutics are not accessible to all.