Amid growing concerns over the new omicron COVID-19 variant, the Biden administration is supporting efforts by the World Health Organization to establish a new international agreement on future pandemic preparedness and response.
"The United States is committed to working with member states to take forward the recent recommendations of the working group on preparedness and response. That includes developing a new WHO convention agreement or other international instrument and making agreements to improve the effectiveness and agility of international health regulations," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday to VOA aboard Air Force One.
The U.S. had initially opposed the inclusion of language that would have made the so-called pandemic treaty — proposed by about two dozen world leaders in March — legally binding. But on Sunday, the administration supported a draft resolution that is being negotiated at a three-day virtual special session of the WHO governing body, the World Health Assembly, beginning Monday.
The pandemic treaty is expected to be ready in May 2024. Some public health experts are pessimistic of the outcome.
"The prognosis is still quite poor that we're going to get to a legally binding treaty that the U.S. and every other country of substance in the world accepts in the coming two or even three years," Krishna Udayakumar, founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center at Duke University, told VOA. "Anything that comes out of this process is very unlikely to make any change to our current environment and the current pandemic response."
The agreement would cover issues such as the sharing of data and genome sequences of emerging viruses, and of any potential vaccines and drugs derived from research. The goal is to come up with better coordination and cohesion in the global pandemic response and create a more robust global health architecture that will protect future generations.
"Over and over, COVID has reminded us that it will not go down easily and that we must act together," U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra said in his remarks at the WHO session.
According to research by Duke University, more than 22 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the world continues to struggle to enact a coordinated, effective and equitable response. Commitments and pledges remain largely unfulfilled, including the goal of achieving 40% vaccination coverage in every country by the end of 2021, and 70% coverage by mid-2022.
Some 650 million additional vaccine doses are required for at-risk countries to reach the target, factoring in expected deliveries from COVAX, the international vaccine sharing mechanism supported by the U.N. and the health organizations Gavi and CEPI.
Preventing future outbreaks requires a different way of thinking about global health security because COVID-19 represents a new form of globalized crisis, one that is both caused by and exacerbated by an increasingly interconnected modern world, said a spokesperson from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, who spoke to VOA on background.
"One of the lessons we've learned from COVAX is that contingent funding, ready to go early in a crisis, would be a huge head start," the spokesperson said. Creating a global network of sustainable, quality vaccine manufacturing facilities is also key, he added.
While much is still unknown about omicron, public health experts believe that if large portions of the world's population are unvaccinated, variants will continue to appear, and the pandemic will be prolonged.
"Omicron's very emergence is another reminder that although many of us might think we are done with COVID-19, it is not done with us," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at the start of pandemic treaty talks.
Humanitarian organizations say that an international agreement on pandemic preparedness and response should include a waiver of patents and other intellectual property rights of vaccines, diagnostics and treatments of COVID-19 — the TRIPS waiver at the World Trade Organization.
"We need a pandemic treaty with an automatic waiver of intellectual property rules to maximize scale and redistribution of lifesaving tools so everyone can be protected at the same time," said Anna Marriott, Oxfam's health policy manager. "Never again can we repeat the scandal of vaccine apartheid witnessed today that has led to needless loss of life and created the perfect breeding ground for new variants."
An in-person WTO ministerial meeting on the TRIPS waiver set to start Monday in Geneva was postponed because of concerns over omicron and has been rescheduled for March 2022.
After initially opposing it, the U.S. announced its support of the waiver in April, leaving the U.K., Switzerland and the European Union as holdouts against the move.
"The work on the text-based negotiations, the building of consensus — something Ambassador Tai is in the lead on — is continuing, and we're continuing to press for that," Psaki said Tuesday, referring to U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai.
But many are skeptical that the Biden administration is putting any real diplomatic weight on the TRIPS waiver.
"We do observe the lack of more proactive leadership from the U.S. since it's changed the position," said Yuanqiong Hu, senior legal policy adviser for Doctors Without Borders Access Campaign.
Hu added that the U.S. could in theory use its clout to push the remaining small group of countries to agree, but it hasn't appeared to do so beyond public remarks such as last week's call by President Joe Biden for countries to "meet the U.S. challenge to waive intellectual property protections for COVID vaccines, so these vaccines can be manufactured globally."
TRIPS waiver negotiations at the WTO have been stuck, and progress remains dim.
"The U.S. — if it's serious — clearly is not using all of the influence at its discretion to try to move that issue forward," Duke Global Health's Udayakumar said.
VOA's Anita Powell contributed to this report.