Pandemic talks are extended as the deadline passes

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Countries trying to reach a landmark global agreement on how to tackle future pandemics decided to continue negotiating for another fortnight after their deadline expired on Friday.

Scared by the devastation caused by COVID-19 – which has killed millions of people, fragmented economies and crippled healthcare systems – the 194 member states of the World Health Organization have spent two years trying to reach binding agreements on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.

The process aimed to finalize an agreement at the WHO’s annual meeting, which starts on May 27.

A final discussion session in March fell far short of a consensus, so another fortnight of talks was crammed in. However, despite progress on several fronts, talks broke down on Friday without a deal being reached.

“They have worked very hard to reach an agreement as far as possible, and we are not there yet. So we will continue our work,” co-chair Roland Driece told reporters at WHO headquarters in Geneva.

“We have worked very hard and there are so many issues that we need to agree on, both technical and political, and they take time.”

Keeping the momentum

The conversations will continue with periodic meetings, in person and online, until the World Health Assembly (WHA).

Driece and his co-chair Precious Matsoso will release a schedule in the coming days. They must report to the annual meeting from May 27 to June 1, regardless of how far the talks progress.

In a statement, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus added: “Over more than two years of intense negotiations, WHO Member States have shown an unwavering commitment to forging a generational agreement to protect the world from a recurrence of the horrors caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. .

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“I welcome the determination that all countries have shown to continue their work and fulfill the mission they embarked on.”

Despite a clear desire for commitments aimed at preventing another COVID-style disaster, major disagreements have emerged between country blocs over how to achieve them.

The talks took place behind closed doors at WHO headquarters in Geneva.

Fueled by carts full of coffee, bananas, cookies and sandwiches, negotiators have been working long hours since April 29 to reach an agreement.

Tricky issues

The main disputes revolve around access and equity: access to pathogens detected in countries and to pandemic control products such as vaccines produced from that knowledge; and a fair distribution of tests, treatments and jabs against the pandemic, along with the resources to produce them.

Each of the draft agreement’s 37 articles has been taken down separately, with the countries’ negotiators splitting into working groups to try to reach consensus.

Although general agreement has been reached on some articles – without formal sign-off – the core aspects remain at an impasse.

“You can rightly say that progress has been made. If you look at the main points of the agreement, all the important themes are present,” Ellen ‘t Hoen, director of Pharmaceutical Law and Policy, told reporters.

“But a significant number of thorny issues remain that simply need more time.”

James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, added: “There’s some room for negotiation at the moment. I don’t think we’re really there yet.”

He said taking more time was certainly not “the worst outcome.”

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