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World Leaders Call for International Pandemic Treaty

As the global death toll from the coronavirus pandemic reaches 3 million, world leaders issued a call for an international treaty to prevent and fight future pandemics.

(CN) — World leaders and the World Health Organization called Tuesday for an international treaty to prevent a repeat of the coronavirus pandemic, a disaster that's killed about 3 million people, ravaged the world's economy and shred global trust.

Comparing the Covid-19 pandemic to World War II, 25 national leaders, many from Europe, and the WHO said a new treaty is urgently needed to ensure the world is not struck down by future pandemics.

“Together, we must be better prepared to predict, prevent, detect, assess and effectively respond to pandemics in a highly coordinated fashion,” the world leaders said in op-ed pieces published Tuesday in newspapers around the world.

“The time to act is now,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, at a news briefing on Tuesday at his agency's Geneva headquarters. “The world cannot afford to wait until the pandemic is over to start planning for the next one.”

The proposed treaty envisions beating future pandemics by promoting the sharing of vaccines, medicines, protective gear and data on new health threats to humans.

It also envisions a more coordinated and global response to health emergencies, including the quick release of detailed information about a new danger. China, which saw the first cases of a virus believed to have emerged from wet markets in Wuhan, is accused of misleading the world by initially saying the virus wasn't transmissible between humans. In the first days, the WHO agreed with China's assessment, a position that left it open to criticism. Former U.S. President Donald Trump accused the United Nations health agency of helping China cover up the epidemic.

Since the new coronavirus emerged in China in late December 2019, the pandemic has exposed a range of fatal shortcomings: Many countries lacked enough protective gear such as masks and medical gloves; governments and experts gave conflicting information about the seriousness of the virus and how to defeat it; some countries banned travel, others didn't; years of public health cuts left countries with overrun hospitals and ineffective at tracking down infected individuals; vaccines and medicines have been hoarded by rich countries.

“Covid-19 has exposed weaknesses and divisions across our societies and now it is time to come together as one global community to build a pandemic defense for future generations that extends far beyond this crisis,” said Charles Michel, the head of the European Council, a body made up of the EU's political leaders. He spoke during the WHO's Tuesday news briefing.

“Above all, [the pandemic] has taught us one brutal lesson: no country, no continent, can defeat a pandemic alone,” Michel said. “It requires a global approach, the us rather than the me.”

But getting such a treaty agreed upon will not be easy.

The United States, China and Russia, among other major powers, did not sign onto the letter. Tedros said the U.S. and China have been consulted about the treaty, and he said there were “positive” signs from the two superpowers.

The World Health Assembly, a body made up of the 194 member states of the WHO, is expected to discuss the proposal at its next meeting at the end of May.

In the short term at least, the proposed treaty likely will only add to the tensions running high between the U.S. and China over how the pandemic started.

This conflict is particularly intense as the world scrutinizes a WHO-led investigation into the virus origins with a new report issued Tuesday on the findings of an expert mission to China.

A team of WHO-convened experts says the virus most likely jumped from animals to humans. But the U.S. accuses China of covering up where the virus's origin, with former Trump administration officials leveling new accusations that it may have escaped from a virology laboratory in Wuhan. The Biden White House has not dismissed those allegations.

Critics contend the WHO team of experts relied too heavily on China for in their probe. But under WHO rules, the U.N. health agency lacks the powers to undertake a probe of an epidemic inside a country without its consent. In this case, the WHO and its experts are at the mercy of China and rely on its cooperation. Proponents for a new pandemic treaty have said the WHO needs new powers to investigate outbreaks.  

Michel said the proposed treaty would help ensure countries quickly let others understand the threat they face from an emerging disease or health threat.

“At the beginning of the crisis, we didn't have all at the same time the same understanding about the seriousness of the situation,” Michel said without referring to China. “And that's why this question of the exchange of data is key to be able to act together, to take decisions together.”

In their letter, the national leaders said the world needs to erect a multilateral system of governance for health emergencies that mirrors the steps world leaders took after World War II to prevent future wars.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is the biggest challenge to the global community since the 1940s,” the letter states. “At that time, following the devastation of two world wars, political leaders came together to forge the multilateral system. The aims were clear: to bring countries together, to dispel the temptations of isolationism and nationalism, and to address the challenges that could only be achieved together in the spirit of solidarity and cooperation, namely peace, prosperity, health and security.

“We hold the same hope that as we fight to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic together, we can build a more robust international health architecture that will protect future generations. There will be other pandemics and other major health emergencies.”

Among the 27 leaders signing the letter were German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Korean President Moon Jae-in, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Tunisian President Kais Saied, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

They said the new treaty should be rooted in the constitution of the WHO and act as an extension of the International Health Regulations, a set of rules laid out in 2005 about how countries should prevent and control international health threats.

The proposal for a pandemic treaty comes as the world suffers through a new rise in infections and deaths.

The global death toll this week stands at about 3 million after Mexico released data on Sunday showing 120,000 more people likely died from the pandemic than officially reported. Previously, Russia and the United Kingdom also reported much higher death tolls than officially reported. These higher death estimates are based on data on excess deaths, the number of deaths that exceed what is typical. Throughout the world, experts say many deaths caused by the virus go unreported because people who die in their homes may not get tested for the virus.

Courthouse News reported Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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