Four years after COVID, we are still lacking an international prevention plan 

It has been four years since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged and caused the deaths and suffering of millions of people across the globe, along with extraordinary economic devastation.

In December 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) and its 194 member states — all national governments — resolved to draft and negotiate a “convention, agreement, or other international instrument to strengthen pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.” You would think that the governments of the world would seize this unprecedented opportunity to protect themselves, their children and grandchildren, as well as future generations, from the shattering impacts of pandemics. But you’d be wrong.  

When the process launched, there was a sense of urgency and commitment to adopt an agreement that would ensure that something like COVID-19 never happens again. But what we have seen in the past six months is a decline in political will and a failure to communicate and compromise. 

Governments, through the WHO, have given themselves until May 10 to reach a consensus on this international instrument, yet appear nowhere close to adopting text that will truly prevent consequential pathogen spillovers from wildlife that could bring us COVID-25, 26, or beyond. With only five negotiating days left on the calendar, governments must show leadership and converge on mutually acceptable text. Otherwise, we run the risk of a weak agreement or no agreement at all. 

The WHO suggests that “zoonotic” spillovers of viral pathogens between wildlife and people have been responsible for up to 75 percent of new infectious diseases in the past decade. We know how to prevent such outbreaks, and scientists are clear that it’s not “if” but “when” the next pandemic will occur — unless strong actions are taken. But most scientists and other NGO experts are sadly not allowed in the room where the WHO agreement text is being hashed out. 

While countries must be better prepared and ready to respond to epidemics and pandemics, it is essential that they act now to reduce the emergence of infectious diseases at human-animal-environment interfaces in the first place. This concept, known as “prevention at source,” is our first line of defense against future pandemics and acknowledges the interconnectedness between human, wildlife, livestock and ecosystem health that constitute the One Health model. 

Studies show that primary prevention is the most effective and economical way to avoid future pandemics. Yet WHO negotiations have stalled for multiple reasons, including lack of political will and failure to reach a consensus on the sharing of both pathogen information and the economic benefits of vaccines — disregarding critical science on pandemic origins and relegating primary prevention to an afterthought, or no thought at all. 

Further, the lack of prevention in the agreement would disproportionately harm Indigenous Peoples and local communities, including in particular poor and marginalized communities. The over-exploitation of the environment, forests and wildlife to meet the demands of urban and global markets increases the contact between people and wildlife, and widens the risk of pathogen spillover, which will hit these communities the hardest.  

Laudable commitments embedded in other multilateral environment agreements — like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) — show progress in One Health and zoonotic spillover prevention in the wake of the COVID crisis. But that’s not enough. 

An inclusive and multilateral agreement is essential to reduce the threats of zoonotic disease outbreaks and address inequities while protecting vital natural resources. A legally binding agreement on pandemics will fail if it does not cover the full spectrum of pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. 

To make progress, governments must invite subject matter experts from outside of the WHO and civil society to re-establish a science-based discourse that is collaborative and integrated. The negotiators must fully embrace transparency rather than the current closed-door process. 

After two and a half years of talking, the global community could deliver an international, legally binding agreement that covers the full spectrum of pandemic preparedness, including a robust and ambitious focus on prevention at source to achieve a global common good of health for all. But time is running out. 

If negotiators fail to act, they place all of humanity at grave risk of a global health catastrophe, and the harsh judgment of generations who would look back at this inflection point in horror at the road not taken. 

Susan Lieberman is vice president for international policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society, where Chris Walzer is executive director for health and Christine Franklin is an intergovernmental policy officer. 

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