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Delegates race to complete a global treaty on how to prevent the next pandemic


OK, so not pleasant to think about, but necessary - if another pandemic were to strike, would the world do a better job responding? Negotiators in Geneva, Switzerland, are working to try to make sure the answer to that question is yes. This week, they are racing to complete the first-ever treaty that lays out how countries can work together to prevent and respond to pandemics. They plan to present it to the World Health Organization's members next week for adoption, but there are still questions and sticking points. NPR's Gabrielle Emanuel is here to tell us more about this. Good morning.


MARTIN: So remind us of what happened that causes global health leaders to think a treaty like this is necessary.

EMANUEL: Yes. So the idea for this treaty was born at the height of COVID. Hundreds of thousands of people were dying of this disease, supply chains were in crisis, and there was a major outcry about fairness when it came to the rollout of the COVID vaccine. At one point, 65% of people in wealthy nations were fully vaccinated, while only 3% of people in low-income countries were. I spoke with Hadley Sultani Matendechero. He's Kenya's deputy director general for health. He told me he lost dozens of friends to COVID. He says Kenyans really wanted vaccines.

HADLEY SULTANI MATENDECHERO: This, in our minds, was the only antidote to this catastrophe, but then we are not able to access it. It was a very desperate situation.

EMANUEL: He describes it as a certain kind of helplessness that happens when you see others getting what you need but can't have. He and many people in the Global South are hoping a pandemic treaty will make sure that this kind of thing never happens again.

MARTIN: So how would this treaty help, and what would it cover?

EMANUEL: Yeah. So it's trying to tackle a whole bunch of issues - coordination, beefing up laboratory networks and how to share proprietary technology in public health emergencies. But this equity question is really at the heart of the treaty, and what negotiators have done is concoct a new system. So here is the idea. Let's say you're Kenya and you've been keeping track of a new virus that is showing up in your country, and you have a lot of vital information about it, like its genetic sequence. This is information that's needed if anyone's going to make a vaccine or treatment. So under the treaty, you, Kenya, would agree to share that information with other countries, who would then, in return, commit to sharing a certain percentage of the vaccines and treatments they end up making from it. Now, exactly what percentage of vaccines would be shared - there's a lot of controversy about that.

MARTIN: So tell us about the sticking points. What are they?

EMANUEL: So the biggest sticking point is this question - how do you share information, and how do you share vaccines and treatments? The negotiators are trying to figure it out right now. If they do get to a final draft of the text, they will present it for adoption to the WHO's governing body next week. If all that goes smoothly, then it goes back to the nearly 200 individual countries to be ratified. But there is one thing that's come up that could damage its prospects. I spoke with Roland Driece, a top official involved in the negotiations.

ROLAND DRIECE: All around the world, there is something like a coordinated attempt for misinformation in an attempt to frustrate this process.

EMANUEL: From Japan to South Africa to the U.S., you're seeing fearmongering about how ratifying this treaty could threaten a country's sovereignty. Now, that is not what this treaty does. But given the environment, negotiators have added a paragraph that's explicitly stating so.

MARTIN: That's NPR global health correspondent Gabrielle Emanuel. Thank you so much.

EMANUEL: Thank you.

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NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.