TThis week, health officials from around the world will gather in Geneva – and virtually – to discuss plans for a global treaty on pandemic preparedness. This is a critical endeavor as the world struggles to find a way through the current pandemic, with a race against time to get vaccines to all who need them.
This special session of the World Health Assembly will be an opportunity to share the lessons of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and to lay the foundations for the fight against the next major epidemic.
While finding solutions for vaccine equity is a key consideration for the assembly, it is also important that it learns lessons about how innovation has helped deliver safe and effective vaccines in one. Record time. Innovation is closely linked to pandemic preparedness, and the role of pathogen sharing in supporting this innovation is a topic worth highlighting.
In the interest of global public health, researchers must be able to share information about viruses, bacteria and other dangerous pathogens across borders from the moment an outbreak is detected. When researchers refuse or delay the sharing of pathogens, they increase the severity of an epidemic.
Consider how the rapid sharing of information affected the course of the Covid-19 pandemic: Just two days after researchers in China identified a novel coronavirus as the cause of the disease, they released the genetic sequence for SARS- CoV-2 in a public database.
A few weeks later, several biopharmaceutical companies had identified their first vaccine candidates. And less than a year after the discovery of the new coronavirus, the Food and Drug Administration had authorized the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the United States. Today, 23 vaccines have been approved for use worldwide, and more than 100 more are in clinical development. This is all possible because scientists quickly shared information about the new coronavirus and its subsequent variants.
Had scientists withheld the virus and information about its mutations, efforts to develop and deploy vaccines and therapies – and to track the spread of the virus – would have been delayed by months, if not years. The death toll from Covid-19 would be infinitely higher, and the world could still be subject to near constant lockdowns.
In the context of preparing for a future pandemic, any potential delay in sharing pathogens and their information would run counter to the aspiration set by the Group of Seven countries – backed by the science industry. life – to develop vaccines, diagnostics and treatment within 100 days.
A scenario in which harmful pathogens could be accumulated and used as bargaining chips by countries that could trigger a pandemic around the world is sadly not fiction. In fact, under some interpretations of an international agreement commonly known as the Nagoya Protocol, countries might choose to keep pathogen data and samples for themselves. This potential scenario, and the need for rapid information sharing, is being taken into account as part of the World Health Assembly’s pandemic preparedness discussions.
The Nagoya Protocol is a supplement to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Its stated aim is to enable countries to conserve biodiversity and share all the benefits derived from the use of their âgenetic resourcesâ – whether plants, fungi or various forms of wild animals. It is a laudable goal.
But several countries have interpreted the Nagoya Protocol as extending to pathogens and have adopted policies that prevent the sharing of pathogen samples or data, even if it would save lives.
During a Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak that began in 2012, Saudi Arabia refused to share samples of the virus with researchers. A similar case of pathogen retention occurred after the start of an Ebola outbreak in West Africa in late 2013. In each of these cases, the ability of the scientific community to contain the epidemics, to track the spread of disease and to treat patients has been hampered.
In addition to being deeply worrying, these actions misinterpret the Nagoya Protocol. Pathogens do not belong to any country and do not deserve the protection or reward of biodiversity. We should not try to preserve their biodiversity, on the contrary.
Nor are they “genetic resources”, as a seed or an animal might be. These are threats to public health and, like landmines, should be eradicated. It is ludicrous to create a situation in which a country is allowed to exercise sovereignty over dangerous pathogens, especially when it puts lives at risk. Yet by failing to specifically exempt pathogens, the Convention on Biological Diversity has enabled countries to do just that.
Given the way some governments choose to interpret the Nagoya Protocol, the world is lucky that China has not claimed sovereignty over SARS-CoV-2. It is folly to leave such an important problem to chance. In the event of a new pandemic, some countries could assert their “rights” to the virus samples, keeping the rest of the world in the dark.
The upcoming meeting in Geneva is a valuable opportunity for political leaders to send a clear message on behalf of public health and global health security. To this end, members of the World Health Assembly must ensure that a firm commitment to sharing pathogens and information is part of any international treaty on pandemic preparedness. Such a requirement would make it mandatory to publish data on dangerous viruses, bacteria and microorganisms as soon as possible after a discovery of a new pathogen, regardless of where that discovery may have taken place.
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to show, infectious diseases transcend borders. This is why a pandemic preparedness treaty is such an essential tool for success. While we still have a lot to learn about how to respond to future pandemics, a commitment to sharing pathogens and their information is something that we know will make a substantial difference going forward. It must be adopted by all countries participating in the World Health Assembly.
Let us hope that all countries applying the principles of the Nagoya Protocol to human pathogens reconsider their position, exempt pathogens from bilateral rules of all relevant legislation and associated negotiations, and commit to facilitating rapid and predictable access to samples of human pathogens. pathogens and their information.
Thomas B. Cueni is Director General of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations. The opinions expressed here are his own.