What happens if there’s another pandemic?

What happens if there’s another pandemic?

By: Nick Dearden
Date: 29 April 2024
Campaigns: Pharma

Negotiations have resumed today in Geneva on the Pandemic Preparedness Treaty, the World Health Organisation’s effort to establish an international agreement for what happens if there’s another pandemic. The treaty is due to be finalised at the World Health Assembly next month.

In the dark days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the British government led efforts to prevent Covid-19 vaccines being shared fairly with those who needed them most around the world.

Now they’re at it again, fighting proposals to create a Pandemic Treaty that would prevent such injustice in the future. Once again, for our government, Big Pharma profits come first.

Never again

This treaty should be making sure the lessons of the pandemic are learnt, and we never again allow Big Pharma to dictate who gets to produce and purchase life-saving medicines in the middle of a global health crisis.

During the pandemic, massive pharmaceutical corporations monopolised vaccine know-how, even though those medicines would never have existed without massive public investment.

Big Pharma monopolies allowed corporations like Pfizer and Moderna to make astronomical profits. But they prevented the world from producing enough medicines for everyone, as the corporations refused to share the knowledge behind the vaccines with countries that could have produced their own.

In turn, this created a vaccine apartheid, where the richest bought more vaccines than they needed, while even frontline health workers in poorer countries went without. A study for the journal Nature found that more than 1 million lives might have been saved if vaccines had been shared more equitably with lower-income countries in 2021.

The Pandemic Treaty should be about making sure this never happens again. It could create legal obligations so that, in future health crises, corporations are forced to share vital know-how so that countries in the global south are able to produce what they need. This is what many global south countries have been arguing for in months of negotiations. But shamefully, Britain has fought against these measures.

We’re now in the final stages of negotiation. Over the next few weeks we should see a final agreement emerge.

All take and no give

One really shocking feature of the negotiations so far has been the demand from rich countries like Britain that poorer countries should be compelled to monitor and share data on disease outbreaks, but that there should be no compulsion placed on rich corporations to share the medicines that are made as a result of that data. The hypocrisy could not be more blatant.

We have a couple of weeks to change things. We want to tell the British government that they are not acting in our name. We need to demand that they back global south proposals, including:

  • A legal commitment in the Treaty to share medicine knowledge during a pandemic.
  • An automatic suspension of intellectual property rules during a pandemic, allowing all countries that can produce pandemic medicines to do so.
  • A commitment from richer countries to help finance the commitments being made by poorer countries to scale up their research, development and manufacturing.

There’s still time to agree a ground-breaking Pandemic Treaty which makes sure vaccine apartheid is never repeated. But we need to pressure the UK government to change course.

Take action

Tell the UK: Don’t repeat vaccine apartheid >>

Nick Dearden is the author of Pharmanomics: How Big Pharma Destroys Global Health

Photo: WTO/Jay Louvion (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)