Workers from the Samoa Ministry of Health prepare cold boxes for measles vaccination teams at Tupua Tamasese Meaole Hospital in Apia. Photo: Allan Stephen/Infinity Images / UNICEF
Experts agree that a lot can be done to prevent future pandemics, mitigate their severity, and avoid repeating mistakes made during the response to COVID-19. Countries have been negotiating the terms of a pandemic accord to create a blueprint to prevent, prepare for, and improve response to future global health threats. It is a crucial step in securing the health and well-being of people everywhere.
What is the pandemic accord, and why do we need it?
The COVID-19 pandemic proved, once and for all, that no one is safe until everyone is safe. A health crisis somewhere can very quickly become a health crisis everywhere. The COVID-19 pandemic also showed us the weaknesses in the international system that coordinates the world’s response to pandemic threats. Numerous expert review panels have reached the same conclusion: More must be done to reduce the likelihood and impact of future pandemics.
With this goal in mind, all countries of the world resolved in December 2021 to develop an international agreement, referred to as a pandemic accord (and sometimes called a pandemic treaty), which will define rules and norms for how countries can better prevent pandemics from happening and respond to future health emergencies in order to protect the safety and well-being of people everywhere.
Empty shops on Malioboro Street in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, as consumer spending decreased in both urban and rural areas during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Adi Purnatama
What could the pandemic accord accomplish?
International agreements serve an important role in holding countries accountable and solving global problems that transcend borders. For example, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, the first treaty in the history of the UN to achieve universal ratification, has succeeded in eliminating around 99% of ozone-depleting substances.
If widely adopted by countries, the pandemic accord has the potential to stop pandemics before they start and to facilitate a faster, more effective response — saving lives and protecting against losses to the global economy.
Key principles are emerging on how a pandemic accord could be valuable to the global community. An accord could:
Improve transparency and early warning of potentially dangerous outbreaks.
Ensure health workers have the tools and protection they need.
Facilitate faster development and deployment of new vaccines and medicines worldwide.
Improve laboratory and surveillance capabilities around the world.
Enable a faster, better, and more cooperative response to the next health crisis.
Respect and protect human rights.
How soon will the pandemic accord be finalized?
These are early days in the development of the pandemic accord. The final text is far from being confirmed by governments, and many changes are expected in negotiations that will last at least until May 2024.
Maryann Turnsek (center), microbiologist for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), works with staff at the molecular biology department of the National Public Health Laboratory of Haiti in Port-au-Prince. After more than three years with no cases of cholera reported in Haiti, the Ministry of Health confirmed two positive cases in October 2022, prompting health authorities to declare an outbreak. Photo: Georges Harry Rouzier / US CDC / UNICEF
Who decides what is in the pandemic accord?
The pandemic accord is being determined by governmental leaders from 194 countries through an ongoing negotiation process, facilitated by the World Health Organization (WHO). Once the final agreement is decided, each country will choose whether to be a party to it. Even though this process is being led by governments, there have been many opportunities for the wider public to lend their voice. To date, thousands of organizations and individuals have provided input through diverse platforms, including public hearings, online surveys, email submissions, and statements during meetings.
How would the pandemic accord change the way countries manage pandemic threats?
The accord would create incentives and opportunities for greater transparency and collaboration among countries on areas that are key to a global response to pandemic threats. It would also establish means to encourage governments to comply, such as procedures for reporting and accountability.
What it would not do is hand over control of domestic public health policies to WHO or any other international body. As with other international agreements, the pandemic accord would not affect countries’ sovereignty. How each country goes about implementing the agreement would depend on its own domestic laws and policies.
How can I get involved?
First, it is important to educate yourself on the pandemic accord.