Feb. 27, 2023—GENEVA. Negotiations open here today on the “zero draft” of the World Health Organization’s new pandemic treaty. Known as “WHO CA+,” the treaty is already drawing criticism from some U.S. senators who remember how President Obama bypassed the Senate in 2015 and unilaterally joined the Paris Agreement on climate change. They have drafted a resolution demanding that the treaty be submitted to the Senate for advice and consent pursuant to the U.S. Constitution.
Senate approval is not only appropriate, but essential. Many provisions hinted at in earlier outlines and drafts led conservatives to raise objections. Those concerns remain active.
The COVID-19 pandemic was devastating. The WHO reports over 6.85 million COVID-related deaths, more than 1.1 million in the U.S. alone. Globally, the economic costs ran into the trillions of dollars. It makes sense for the WHO and the world’s governments to seek to prevent or minimize the impact of another pandemic.
However, “doing something” is not sufficient. The question that must be asked is what were the problems that led to the previous pandemic and what can be done to fix them. This is the lens through which the pandemic treaty must be viewed. Unfortunately, the draft treaty clearly falls short.
When COVID struck, the existing framework for detecting, preventing, and addressing pandemics was the International Health Regulations (IHRs). The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the weaknesses of that framework. The voluntary nature of the IHRs allowed China, without repercussion, to conceal the outbreak, fail to share critical information, and impede visits by WHO expert teams to determine the origin of the outbreak. Although the draft WHO CA+ makes transparency and cooperation mandatory (using the term “shall” when referencing facilitating access and sharing of research and genomic data), it provides no consequences for non-compliance. Thus, there is little reason to believe that China would live up to its obligations any better than it did under the voluntary IHRs.
In fact, the treaty fails entirely to address China’s central role in exacerbating the COVID pandemic and shamefully emulates the WHO’s quiet abandonment of its investigation into the origins of COVID-19.
Nor does the treaty reform the WHO, which performed terribly in the initial stages of the pandemic. Though fully aware of Beijing’s obstructionism and opacity, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus dutifully echoed Chinese misrepresentations of the nature of the threat from COVID-19. The WHO downplayed Beijing’s unwillingness to allow a WHO technical team to visit Wuhan and its refusal to share critical genomic data and virus samples. Meekly yielding to political pressure, the Director-General instead praised China repeatedly.
Rather than propose meaningful reforms for the WHO, the draft treaty rewards the organization by further empowering it. The treaty would expand the WHO’s authority to declare a pandemic—and that declaration would trigger treaty provisions that override intellectual property rights and charged the WHO with overseeing the “equitable” allocation of pandemic related resources that the U.S. and other “developed” nations are expected to provide.
In fact, the bulk of WHO CA+ focuses not on addressing the weaknesses in prevention and detection revealed during the COVID-19 pandemic, but on establishing a system to mandate expenditures by the treaty parties, require regulatory and policy changes relating to pandemic related products and intellectual property, and “equitably” redistribute knowledge, technology, and other resources.
For instance, if the U.S. joins the treaty, it would “commit to prioritize and increase or maintain … domestic funding by allocating in its annual budgets not lower than 5% of its current health expenditure to pandemic prevention, preparedness, response and health systems recovery.” Additionally, the U.S. would be on the hook to provide an undetermined percentage of its gross domestic product to “international cooperation and assistance on pandemic prevention, preparedness, response and health systems recovery, particularly for developing countries.” This will involve billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars.
A central pillar of the treaty is to facilitate the transfer of technology to “developing” countries and provide resources to shore up their health systems. Guess what? Despite having the second largest economy in the world, the U.N. considers China a developing country. This means that China will likely be a beneficiary of these transfers. China already steals intellectual property; the treaty would legalize it.
Additionally, the treaty outlines commitments for governments to waive intellectual property rights for pandemic related vaccines, medicines, and other products. This sounds like a prudent move during a pandemic, but it creates massive disincentives for private research and development of these products by calling on treaty signatories to support waiving patent rights and sharing proprietary technology and knowledge. Requirements that trample intellectual property rights inevitably chill scientific investment and progress.
As a cherry on top, the treaty encourages national governments to crack down on “misinformation or disinformation”—a clear invitation to suppress free speech. Is this really the path to take given mounting evidence that government claims governing mask effectiveness, vaccines versus natural immunity, and school closures were unsound? Can an unreformed WHO, which echoed Chinese propaganda in January 2020 that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” of COVID-19, be trusted to judge misinformation?
It is unclear to what extent the Biden administration supports the above-mentioned provisions of the draft treaty. However, in the treaty negotiations starting today the Administration should demand that these provisions be excised.
This piece originally appeared in 19fortyfive