Draft treaty sets far-reaching new rules for countries – POLITICO
The coronavirus pandemic isn’t over yet, but countries are already crafting a new set of rules to respond to the next one.
The draft pandemic treaty that is being negotiated by diplomats in Geneva would require countries to make significant pledges to ensure fair access to pandemic products – pledges that risk being pushed back by Big Pharma.
A draft text, obtained by POLITICO, lays the groundwork for discussions that are expected to run until May 2024, when the final deal will be adopted.
Countries have admitted they were unprepared for COVID-19 – which has infected more than 600 million people and claimed an estimated 6.6 million lives – with the crisis characterized by unequal access to vaccines, hoarding of medical supplies, a lack of transparency about supply agreements, and a lack of geographic diversity in the manufacture of these products.
In its current form, the draft treaty would bind countries to significant commitments to improve access. A key objective? Prevent the “gross inequities that have hampered timely access to medical and other COVID-19 pandemic response products” from happening again.
First proposed by the President of the European Council Charles Michel in 2020, the idea was eventually taken up by the countries of the World Health Organization. Although the final deal may not take the form of a treaty, the body negotiating the text has already agreed that it should be legally binding.
If WHO members agree, the consequences would be enormous not only for the countries themselves, but also for the pharmaceutical companies that develop, manufacture and distribute pandemic countermeasures. In its current form, the text binds countries to commitments which, if implemented, would upset the conditions for granting funds for research; would include commitments regarding the disclosure of prices and contract terms of pandemic products; and establish mechanisms for the transfer of technology and know-how.
Focus on transparency
Among the many provisions of the draft, the draft agreement states that countries should develop mechanisms that « promote and provide relevant transfer of technology and know-how » to potential manufacturers in all regions, with an emphasis on developing countries.
It also calls for measures that would encourage the sharing of resources for research and development, as well as the development of a set of principles « that ensure that public funding of research and development for pandemic translates into fairer access and pricing.” Importantly, this would include « terms relating to distributed manufacturing, licensing, technology transfer, and pricing policies. »
The draft treaty also emphasizes the need to establish stockpiles of pandemic products, suggesting the use of pooling mechanisms based on public needs, with effective multilateral and regional procurement mechanisms.
Indemnification and confidentiality clauses that have weighed on decisions about COVID-19 vaccines are also targeted, with a call to implement measures to limit these clauses. The text aims to ensure that « sponsors of pandemic response product research bear some of the risk (responsibility) when the products or supplies are in the research phase, and they access these pandemic response products. pandemic ».
The draft treaty also calls for the disclosure of information on public research and development funding which would include « recommendations to require companies that produce pandemic response products to disclose prices and contract terms for public procurement in times of pandemic”. In many countries, information about contractual arrangements has remained closely guarded secrets, with transparency campaigners struggling to access this information.
There is a provision in the text that will be a double-edged sword for the pharmaceutical industry – a call for « swift, regular and timely » sharing of pathogen and genetic sequence data. This request comes with the condition that there is fair and equitable access to the benefits of providing this data. This would be supported by a « comprehensive access and benefit-sharing system ».
Industry has called for the rapid sharing of information on potentially dangerous pathogens and warned against using it as a « bargaining chip » by countries, expressing concern that endless negotiations over the terms of data sharing interfere with its ability to react.
During the pandemic, Big Pharma has also lobbied against any effort to weaken its intellectual property rights, even using divestment threats to get its message across. Although much has already been sketched out in the draft, issues relating to intellectual property rights have yet to be resolved.
Multiple proposals are listed in the document, ranging from the most neutral where countries would recognize that “protection of intellectual property rights is important for the development of new medical products, but also acknowledge concerns about its effects on prices.”
At the most controversial end, a proposal calls on countries to acknowledge « concerns that intellectual property over life-saving medical technologies continue to pose a threat and impediment to the full realization of the right to health and scientific progress for all, especially the effect on prices.
As far as treaty implementation is concerned, the way forward is unclear. The text states that the governing body will decide at its first meeting on procedures to promote compliance with the text and « if deemed appropriate, to deal with instances of non-compliance ». Measures would include monitoring, accountability measures, and reporting or reviews.