In an age of pandemics, pathogen sharing can’t be optional

Published : 24 Feb 2022 08:00 PM | Updated : 24 Feb 2022 08:02 PM

While it makes for uncomfortable reading, the world will eventually face the risk of another pandemic that’s even worse than COVID-19. It’s only a matter of time.

The question is whether we’re prepared — and the decisions we take today and in the coming months will build a solid foundation on which we can monitor and respond to such risks.

COVID-19 has shown us that there are a lot of things beyond our control, but we do have agency today to shape the world we’ll be when we face the next pandemic. As we build back better, we must not neglect the global risk of the inadequate implementation of a global agreement inked in Japan in 2010. The Nagoya Protocol unintentionally could become a major barrier to the international sharing of pathogen information required to quickly mobilize against infectious diseases with pandemic potential.

As governments rally for the upcoming World Health Assembly in May this year, a draft for future pandemic preparedness response is being drawn up. This offers ministers of health the opportunity to remove any wiggle room for the Nagoya Protocol to hinder sharing of pathogens and ensure the scientific community can seamlessly collaborate in developing future treatments and vaccines for whatever new viruses come our way.

To see why sharing data on new pathogens is important, look no further than the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Jan. 10, 2020, just days after identifying the novel coronavirus, Chinese scientists posted COVID-19’s genetic sequence to a public database. Within weeks, biotech firms designed experimental vaccines which — after extensive testing — started reaching patients by late fall 2020, years faster than any previous vaccine in history.

How we ready ourselves for the ‘age of pandemics’ is in our hands. 

And the World Health Assembly’s 

decision on future pandemic 

preparedness is the best chance 

we have of forging such an agreement soon

The speedy rollout of the shots — to date, more than 10 billion doses have been administered globally — has saved millions of lives. None of this would have been possible had Chinese scientists not shared their data in those early days.

Worryingly, the rapid exchange of pathogen samples and information is far from guaranteed in future pandemics and the gray zones associated with how the Nagoya Protocol is interpreted at country-level is partially to blame.

The protocol is a supplement to a larger global treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Negotiated primarily by environmental experts, it was intended to preserve biodiversity by granting countries the right to share in any benefits derived from their natural “genetic resources.”

That last phrase was intended to refer to resources whose biodiversity must be preserved. But, since the adoption of the Nagoya Protocol, some governments have chosen to use the protocol to claim that pathogens, such as dangerous bacteria, viruses and parasites, should also be considered “genetic resources.”

This makes no sense, of course.

Pathogens are, by definition, public health threats — not “resources.” Claiming ownership over them and demanding that other countries pay for the privilege of accessing that data perverts the entire focus of the CBD, which is biodiversity preservation.

Yet this hasn’t stopped some nations from restricting access to pathogens — at times impeding the effort to contain outbreaks.

This happened in 2012, when scientists around the world were denied access to samples and data of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus that was first found in Saudi Arabia. Indonesia, Brazil and Vietnam have also claimed sovereignty over viruses in recent years, delaying attempts to identify, study, track and contain dangerous pathogens.

These delays create a domino effect on manufacturing. For instance, early last year, due to extreme uncertainty about national access- and benefit-sharing of an H3N2 influenza strain in Cambodia, some pharmaceutical companies switched to a Tasmanian strain, which significantly lowered vaccine production by as many as 400 million doses.

Fortunately, such “pathogen protectionism” has not been such a major issue with COVID-19 — at least not so far. When South African scientists first discovered the omicron variant, they acted quickly to share data with researchers around the world. Those efforts made a key difference in the global response to the variant. Vaccine manufacturers were able to jumpstart efforts to quickly adapt vaccines to this new strain.

Pathogen— and data-sharing of this sort cannot be left to chance, at the whim of one country to the expense of the world. The only way to ensure the Nagoya Protocol is not abused by countries is to embed unrestricted pathogen sharing in any global agreement on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.

For future pandemic preparedness, we should create an unequivocal obligation for governments to share dangerous viruses, microorganisms and bacteria. The World Health Assembly has a chance to clarify that pathogens are in no way considered “genetic resources” as defined by the CBD.

If the global community is to contain the next deadly outbreak, we must follow the example set by South Africa. No one country should be free to hold essential data and pathogens hostage in the name of securing their own benefit at the cost of global public health.

More than 10 years ago, industry in Japan acknowledged that, should pathogens fall under ‘genetic resources’, there would be tremendous consequences and uncertainty. The Nagoya Protocol was signed to protect the planet’s natural resources, just as unrestricted pathogen-sharing aims to protect its people. Japan has the opportunity to continue driving positive change in global health response and can be a leading advocate to remove this unintended barrier to pandemic preparedness and response.

What’s needed now are global agreements that don’t just promote pathogen-sharing but make it essential.

How we ready ourselves for the ‘age of pandemics’ is in our hands. And the World Health Assembly’s decision on future pandemic preparedness is the best chance we have of forging such an agreement soon.

Thomas Cueni is director-general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations. Source: The Japan Times