This week, health officials from around the world will meet in Geneva — and virtually — to discuss plans for a global treaty on pandemic preparedness. This is an essential undertaking as the world struggles to find a path 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 a chance to share lessons from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and lay the groundwork for how to tackle the next major outbreak.
While finding solutions for vaccine equity is a critical consideration for the assembly, it is also important for it to draw lessons on how innovation has resulted in delivering safe and effective vaccines in record time. Innovation is closely linked to pandemic preparedness, and the role of sharing pathogens to support this innovation is a topic that deserves prime billing.
For the sake of global public health, researchers need to be able to share information about dangerous viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens across borders from the moment an outbreak is detected. When researchers withhold or delay pathogen sharing, they elevate the severity of an outbreak.
Consider how swift 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 illness, they posted the genetic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 to 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 novel coronavirus, the Food and Drug Administration had authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for use in the U.S. Today, 23 vaccines have been authorized for use around the world, and more than 100 others are in clinical development. All of this is possible because scientists quickly shared information about the novel coronavirus and its subsequent variants.
Had scientists withheld the virus and information about its mutations, efforts to develop and deploy vaccines and therapeutics — and to track the spread of the virus — would have been set back months, or even years. Covid-19’s death toll would be immeasurably higher, and the world might still be under near-constant lockdowns.
In the context of future pandemic preparedness, any potential delay in sharing pathogens and their information would work against the aspiration set by the Group of Seven countries — supported by the life science industry — to develop vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments within 100 days.
A scenario in which harmful pathogens could be hoarded and used as bargaining chips by countries that could unleash a pandemic on the world is sadly not the stuff of fiction. In fact, under certain interpretations of an international agreement generally known as the Nagoya Protocol, countries could choose to keep pathogen data and samples for themselves. This potential scenario, and the need for quick sharing of information, is being considered as part of the World Health Assembly pandemic preparedness discussions.
The Nagoya Protocol is a supplement to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Its stated aim is to enable countries to preserve biodiversity and share in any benefits derived from the use of their “genetic resources” — be they plants, fungi, or various forms of wildlife. It’s a laudable goal.
But several nations have interpreted the Nagoya Protocol to extend to pathogens, and enacted policies that impede sharing either samples of pathogens or data about them even when doing so would save lives.
During an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) that began in 2012, Saudi Arabia refused to share samples of the virus with researchers. A similar instance of pathogen withholding occurred after an Ebola outbreak began in western Africa near the end of 2013. In each of these cases, the scientific community’s ability to contain outbreaks, track the spread of disease, and treat patients was impeded.
Aside from being deeply concerning, these actions wildly misinterpret the Nagoya Protocol. Pathogens don’t belong to any one country, nor do they deserve the protection or the reward of biodiversity. We should not be trying to preserve their biodiversity — quite the opposite.
Nor are they “genetic resources,” the way a seed or animal might be. They are public health threats and, like land mines, should be eradicated. It is ludicrous to create a situation in which a country is permitted to exert sovereignty over dangerous disease-causing agents — especially when doing so puts lives at risk. Yet by failing to specifically exempt pathogens, the Convention on Biological Diversity has made it possible for countries to do exactly that.
Given the way some governments are choosing to interpret the Nagoya Protocol, the world is fortunate that China didn’t claim sovereignty over SARS-CoV-2. It is insanity to leave an issue this important to chance. In the event of another pandemic, some country might assert its “rights” over 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 in the name of public health and global health security. To that end, members of the World Health Assembly must ensure that a strong commitment to pathogen and information sharing is part of any international treaty on pandemic preparedness. Such a requirement would make it mandatory that data about dangerous viruses, bacteria, and microorganisms be released as soon as possible after a new pathogen is discovered — regardless of where that discovery may have occurred.
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to make clear, infectious diseases transcend borders. That’s why a pandemic-preparedness treaty is such a critical tool to get right. While we still have much to learn about how to respond to future pandemics, a commitment to sharing pathogens and their information is one thing that we know will make a substantive difference moving forward. It needs to be embraced by all countries engaged in the World Health Assembly.
Let us hope that all countries applying the Nagoya Protocol principles to human pathogens reconsider their position, exempt pathogens from the bilateral rules of any relevant legislation and associated negotiations, and commit to facilitating fast and predictable access to pathogen samples 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.