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Pandemic agreement talks come to the crunch

by Selinda Phenyo
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How will the world deal with future Pandemics

How will the world deal with future pandemics

Countries trying to thrash out a global agreement on handling future pandemics are hoping to seal the deal Friday after weeks of creeping progress in exhausting talks.

Having ploughed past several previous deadlines, the hard stop of next week’s annual gathering of the World Health Organization’s 194 member states is now in clear sight.

Scarred by the devastation caused by Covid-19 — which killed millions, shredded economies and crippled health systems — WHO member countries have spent two years trying to hammer out binding commitments on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.

The bureau steering the talks must report back to the World Health Assembly — the WHO’s supreme decision-making body — regardless of whether or not they have a finalised text for the assembly to consider.

Amid arm-twisting, horse-trading and 3:00 am finishes in recent weeks, the talks have gathered momentum.

However, with much ground left to cover, breaking the remaining logjams by the end of Friday seems a long shot.

“The fact that we’re still making progress shows people are willing to push further. And there’s a sense that even if we can’t conclude, we will reach the World Health Assembly with something concise,” one ambassador in the talks told AFP.

– Gradually going green –

The talks are being held behind closed doors at the WHO’s headquarters in Geneva.

One source in the room said negotiators were optimistic, and could see the finishing line and a way to get there.

“The mood in the room: you see it, you feel it, people wanting to get onto the next thing,” the source said.

But civil society groups following the talks from outside the hall seemed less positive.

“They are negotiating, enthusiastically fighting for a speedy conclusion — but it’s not happening,” K. M. Gopakumar, senior researcher with the Third World Network, told AFP.

Giving the talks very little chance of successfully concluding on time, he said he thought countries would likely press for discussions to continue.

Others suggested countries might opt to present the assembly with a skeleton deal and show agreement in principle.

The assembly could then call for the process to pick up and carry on later in the year.

The rolling draft agreement is not being made public, but a version as it stood on Thursday, seen by AFP, showed large sections have been approved.

In recent days, growing chunks of text have been highlighted in yellow — meaning the wording has been agreed to in small working groups — and then ultimately highlighted in green once approved by all countries.

The 32-page draft contains 34 articles, with 12 fully green and 18 partially green. The four others are almost all in yellow.

Gopakumar said negotiators had this week “greened a few non-contentious areas”, but on “all issues which are contentious, there is no consensus”.

– One more heave –

The main disputes revolve around issues of access and equity: access to pathogens detected within countries, and access to pandemic-fighting products such as vaccines derived from that knowledge.

Other tricky topics are sustainable financing, pathogen surveillance, supply chains, and the equitable distribution of not only tests, treatments and jabs, but also the means to produce them.

Ellen ‘t Hoen, a lawyer with the Medicines Law and Policy NGO, lamented that proper negotiations over the text’s wording had only started within the final round of talks.

“Perhaps the ambition of doing this in two years was a bridge too far, the fastest-ever negotiated UN treaty,” she said.

Going into the final phase, Precious Matsoso, co-chairing the talks, acknowledged that “the more we move towards the assembly, the more complex it becomes”.

Co-chair Roland Drice added: “The attempt is to get as far as we can get.”

“Without compromises, it will not work.”

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus this week urged negotiators to give it “one last big push to get it over the line”.

He has also urged wavering countries not to block the consensus needed to clinch an agreement.

But on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken dampened hopes of a deal, saying a conclusion this week seemed “very unlikely”.

Nonetheless, Washington was still working to ensure that “we’re better prepared for next time”, he said.



The talks are being held behind closed doors at the WHO's headquarters in Geneva (Fabrice COFFRINI)

The talks are being held behind closed doors at the WHO’s headquarters in Geneva (Fabrice COFFRINI)

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