Pandemic agreement talks come to the crunch

Published : 24 May 2024 10:08 PM

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 Intergovernmental Negotiating Body (INB) steering the talks must report back next week to the World Health Assembly (WHA) -- the WHO's supreme decision-making body -- regardless of whether they have a finalised text.

"Discussions are ongoing," WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a media briefing on Friday.

"The mandate of the INB is to present the outcome, or an outcome, for consideration at the WHA, and any consideration at the WHA would then result in advice or action for the next steps.

"At this point, it's impossible to pre-judge what either the outcome of the INB will be, or what follow-up the WHA would decide."

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.

"There's a sense that even if we can't conclude, we will reach the WHA with something concise," one ambassador in the talks told AFP.

On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a congressional hearing that a conclusion this week seemed "very unlikely".

- 'It's not happening' -

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

The main disputes revolve around issues of access and equity: access to pathogens detected within countries, and 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.

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, judging the negotiators had very little chance of finalising the agreement in the coming hours.

"If they don't wrap up on Friday -- and I don't think they will -- I think

it's going to be very close," Jaume Vidal, senior policy advisor with Health

Action International, told AFP.

"I think they will present to the assembly the skeleton of the instrument: there is agreement on the principles and structure."

The assembly could then give instructions for the process to carry on later in the year.