The World Health Organization opened a long-planned special session of member states to discuss ways to strengthen the global fight against pandemics like the coronavirus, just as the worrying new Omicron variant has sparked immediate concerns worldwide.
In the wake of diplomatic wrangling, a draft resolution at the special World Health Assembly stops short of calling for work toward specifically establishing a “pandemic treaty" or “legally binding instrument” sought by some, which could beef up the international response when — not if — a new pandemic erupts.
European Union member states and others had sought language calling for work towards a treaty, but the United States and a few other countries countered that the substance of any accord should be worked out first before any such document is given a name. A “treaty” would suggest a legally binding agreement that would require ratification — and would likely incur domestic political haggling in some countries.
Britain's ambassador in Geneva, Simon Manley, tweeted a copy of the draft text that was agreed by consensus — as required under WHO rules on such issues — and praised Chile and Australia for their work as co-chairs.
“The #Omicron variant shows yet again why we need a common understanding of how we prepare for and respond to pandemics, so we’re all playing by the same rules," he wrote.
The draft makes no reference to the word “treaty” but, among other things, calls for the creation of an “intergovernmental negotiating body” among WHO member states to work out a possible deal to improve pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.
The three-day, largely virtual meeting that opens on Monday amounts to a long-term approach: Any UN-backed agreement is likely to take many months, if not years, to be concluded and come into effect.
But it comes as many countries have been scrambling to address the emergence of the new omicron variant that has led to travel bans across the world and sent tremors through stock markets on Friday.