Pandemic agreement will do little to prevent COVID era health inequities 

    This week the International Negotiating Body resumed the final talks towards a global agreement that will strengthen pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. There’s hope that a pandemic agreement will be adopted by the world’s health ministers next week at the 77th World Health Assembly in Geneva.

    But global health experts are warning that the current draft of the agreement doesn’t pave the way for health equity. There have been major concerns around improving equity with access to pandemic related products.  

    “It has been discussed that pharmaceutical companies donate 10% of their real time production of vaccines to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and that the organisation will have another 10% to buy at affordable prices from companies. In total 20% of real time production will automatically go to WHO or be available for WHO to distribute,” says Dr Anja Maria Rittner, an expert in global health during a recent online information session. 

    “There is also a question of how pharmaceutical companies will participate in this system to make it attractive for them. But also to make it as binding as possible so that benefits will be shared. There’ve also been a lot of questions on whether the participation of pharmaceutical companies would be voluntary or mandatory,”  she says. 

    Speaking at a webinar held this week, Dr Matthew Kavanagh, the director of the Center for Global Health Policy and Politics at Georgetown University in the US, adds that low- and middle-income countries will not have enough power to actually get equitable access. 

    “No international pandemic treaty that continues with the current status is going to affect equity when it comes to outcomes of vaccine production,” he says. “The best we should do is to just share a certain percent of vaccine doses with the WHO as that will secure equity.”

    Health inequities

    Over 190 countries are participating in the negotiations which started in 2021 to come up with a pandemic agreement that will protect even the most vulnerable people in the world’s poorest countries from the economic, social, and medical fallout of a global health crisis. 

    Such an agreement was necessitated by the events of the COVID-19 pandemic which saw gross inequities in the distribution of COVID vaccines, and later treatment. For example, by the beginning of October 2021 more than 5.9 billion vaccines had been administered. Around three quarters of these had been given to people in only 10 countries. 

    “The whole idea of a pandemic agreement emerged after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The negotiations started in 2021,” says Rittner. 

     Rittner explains that the negotiations have been wide ranging and covered issues of pathogen access, sharing of vaccines, treatments and diagnostics, as well as resources needed to help countries prepare for and respond to a large-scale health emergency. 

    Rittner adds that the pandemic agreement has important elements that will benefit WHO member states.

    “The WHO will not impose the pandemic agreement on its member states. What is in the pandemic agreement comes from the ideas of the member states. Therefore rumours that there will be mandatory vaccination imposed by WHO or mandatory lockdowns imposed is not part of the agreement,” she says.

    Health over profits

    On Tuesday the AIDS Healthcare Foundation  issued a stern warning about the current draft of the pandemic agreement saying it will pave the way for a global health disaster which will be worse than what was experienced during the  COVID-19 pandemic. 

    In a statement issued by the Foundation this week, country programme director for South Africa, Dr Kate Ssamula says the drafted agreement is riddled with empty promises and it prioritises pharmaceutical interests over global health needs. 

    The foundation is calling for an agreement to put health over profits. 

    “During COVID-19 big pharmaceutical companies blocked vaccine access. WHO needs to allow countries to suggest clauses to help stop this from happening again.The African continent is at risk of entering the next global health crisis blindfolded, with our hands tied and again at the mercy of wealthy nations. The agreement leaves too much to chance and an open invitation to catastrophe,” Ssamula says. 

    According to the foundation the pandemic agreement in its current form will only benefit big pharmaceutical companies and a select few. – Health-e News 

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