When it comes to deciding what the world should do with the lessons learned from the pandemic, the United States is on the same page as Russia rather than its European allies.
Washington and Moscow are cool to talks on the creation of a pandemic treaty and are stalling efforts to bring forward a decision at the World Health Assembly starting May 24, according to several officials in Geneva, Switzerland, with knowledge of the discussions.
This resistance has brought conversations on the decision down to the wire. Negotiations are further complicated by push back from several other countries that argue there isn’t sufficient time to discuss a treaty as long as they battle the ongoing pandemic.
The proposed decision would call for the establishment of an intergovernmental meeting to discuss the treaty in the following months. The idea was spearheaded by European Council President Charles Michel and has since received backing from more than two dozen world leaders, including U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Indonesian President Joko Widodo. World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is also on board.
A treaty resulting from these talks would aim to formalize cooperation on future health pandemics, with exact details to be hammered out at the intergovernmental meeting. It would likely seek to improve the systems that alert the world to a pandemic — systems that have been criticized for being too slow to respond once the coronavirus was unleashed. It would likely also stipulate data-sharing and requirements for equitable distribution of health products.
Proponents of a treaty point to examples last year like the breakdown of supply chains of personal protective equipment, as some countries stopped exports. They see a treaty as a way to ensure that this squeeze doesn’t happen again, and that the world is prepared to deal with a huge surge in demand in such goods.
While no draft text of such a treaty exists yet, advocates point to the examples of nuclear arms control and climate change as cases where strong international treaties have been adopted.
The U.S., however, has more modest ambitions. It wants to set up a working group of member countries to look at recommendations from three panels set up last year to assess the global response and say what should be improved. This group should also take time to build consensus on what’s needed to strengthen the WHO, said a senior U.S. health official.
The U.S. doesn’t oppose “discussion about a potential international agreement in some form,” but it thinks that many countries are still battling the pandemic and don’t have the necessary resources to engage in a lengthy negotiation process, the U.S. official said.
“Our current collective efforts should be focused on achievable near-term goals, which can lay the groundwork for any potential instrument in the future,” the U.S. official added.
But one of the Geneva officials who spoke to POLITICO suggested that the real U.S. concern may lie elsewhere: Getting enough support to pass the treaty in the U.S. Senate, which would require a two-thirds majority — in other words, Republican support.
The official also described Washington as being more entrenched in its opposition than Moscow, saying the U.S. is “pushing very strongly against the treaty.”
The Russian Mission to the U.N. institutions in Geneva didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Alongside the U.S. and Russia, Jamaica and Brazil are also opposed to airing the question at the World Health Assembly. While more moderate in their opposition, their chief question is whether there’s sufficient time to negotiate the treaty when they’re still dealing with the pandemic, said two of the Geneva officials.
One of them said that, in addition, some states have doubts more broadly about the need for the treaty. Some non-European states are reluctant to back something that “was initially seen as an EU idea,” the official suggested.
The other challenge: Decisions and resolutions at the World Health Assembly are usually taken by consensus, and it would be “relatively hard” to secure unanimity under the current circumstances, the other official said.
If the treaty is agreed upon, proponents say it’ll have to include a serious enforcement mechanism, unlike the current International Health Regulations, which don’t penalize countries for breaching its rules during a health emergency. “We are not asking for the impossible,” said Barbara Stocking, the chair of the Panel for a Global Public Health Convention, a new group working on pandemic preparedness and response to infectious disease outbreaks.
While the details of an enforcement mechanism are far off at this point, she noted that challenges such as nuclear arms control and climate change are handled via international commitments, and the need for compliance is widely recognized. Pandemic preparedness is as grave a global challenge as the other two and has to be attended to in the same way, she said.
For now, to get talks off the ground, the next two weeks are crucial, said the first Geneva official. “If a decision is not made at the World Health Assembly, then you have to wait a year to create an intergovernmental negotiating body,” the official said, adding that there’s some movement in the direction of a compromise, with the text still under active discussion.
Another option: The talks can go ahead, but any countries that don’t want to take part will dissociate themselves rather than veto the initiative outright.
Asked at a briefing ahead of the World Health Assembly whether the decision would be presented next week, Steve Solomon, WHO principal legal officer, said that member countries had a choice: “Do they respond in a business-as-usual sense or do they seize the moment and seize the momentum and do something different?”
Additional reporting from David Herszenhorn.