Why is WHO pushing so hard for a global pandemic treaty?
The treaty has serious implications for the Global South, the pharma industry, sovereignty, democracy, and health administration
The World Health Organisation (WHO), which has failed to trace the origin of the Covid-19 virus so far and which is yet to conduct an audit of its own handling of the Covid pandemic, is pushing 194 countries to ratify a Global Pandemic Treaty that it has drafted.
Once the countries sign the treaty, they will hand over all regulatory control of future pandemics (Disease X) to WHO. The UN body will declare the onset of fresh pandemics, declare protocols to be followed (lockdowns, vaccines), prescribe medicines and their dosage, demand surveillance prescribed by it, and decide on which medicines and vaccines are acceptable and which are not. What is more, WHO will also have the power to censor scientific papers, scientists, and research, and also decide what is disinformation and what is not.
The trouble, points out Dr Amitav Banerjee, a Pune-based epidemiologist, is that WHO’s handling of Covid-19 left much to be desired, and WHO’s credibility took a serious hit. In a conversation with Dr Philip McMillan, a physician in the UK, the two discuss their concerns and implications of the global pandemic treaty that WHO wants 194 countries to ratify in May, 2024.
Three years after the Covid-19 pandemic, WHO has not succeeded in tracing the source of the virus. There are now data that show that neither lockdown nor vaccines, both prescribed by WHO, have worked the way they were projected to. Lockdowns did not stop the spread of the virus and vaccines did not stop its transmission. Several medicines and protocols recommended by WHO turned out to be ineffective. The closure of schools adversely affected students, though data now show that children and the young were never at risk.
The global panic, however, benefitted the pharma industry immensely as WHO kept revising protocols, recommended diagnostics, medicines, and vaccines. No audit has so far been conducted by WHO to conclusively find if its prescriptions worked uniformly in every country and if not, why not.
Dr Banerjee agreed with Dr McMillan that not just governments and people, but even physicians are not fully aware of the implications of this global treaty. That is partly because the draft treaty is unwieldy and uninviting, and partly because physicians may have had little time or patience to go through the fine print and read between the lines, he suggested.
They also agreed with Dutch politician and European Parliament independent member Robert 'Rob' Ruse, one of the several people to have opposed the treaty. WHO is an unelected body and is totally unaccountable to anyone, Ruse has pointed out. But WHO nevertheless wants countries to cede part of their sovereignty so that WHO, despite its poor record, can control future pandemics, bio-terrorism and climate change.
Ruse has also pointed out that one size does not fit all. Dr Banerjee agrees. Demographics differ from country to country as do conditions, he points out. India is a young country with an overwhelming percentage of its population below the age of 70, whereas Europe is ageing faster. Obesity and comorbidities are major health issues in the West but not so much in Asia. In Africa, mortality from Covid was higher in South Africa, where people are more obese than in other countries. While obesity is a problem in the West, malnutrition is a more serious problem in poorer countries like India.
More Indians died of other diseases than of Covid-19, and yet the government spent 50 per cent of the total health budget on securing vaccines to deal with Covid.
Not just demography, but population density and cultural differences too can play a role in pandemics. In India, 80 per cent of the population did not take a booster dose. They did not have to. More Indians died of other diseases than of Covid-19, and yet the government spent 50 per cent of the total health budget on securing vaccines to deal with Covid. Neglect of other diseases has led to a resurgence in cases of TB and dengue, and about 2,000 children in India continue to die every day of diseases other than Covid, Dr Banerjee points out.
Steven Solomon, a lawyer who represents WHO, addressed some of the concerns and maintained that WHO’s will be an independent voice with no regard to politics, colour or country. He defended the treaty, which, he said, would make surveillance (Arogya Setu apps and the like) better, faster and more reliable. As for corruption, the treaty, Solomon says, provides for a fence against conflict of interests.
Dr Banerjee remains unconvinced. How could Solomon say with a straight face that WHO is an independent body, he asks, when 80 per cent of its funding comes from the pharma industry? Pointing out that big pharma increasingly funds medical and health research, medical journals, and offers more grants than governments, how can WHO be said to be an independent body?
Neglect of other diseases has led to a resurgence in cases of TB and dengue, and about 2,000 children in India continue to die every day of diseases other than Covid
He also voices serious reservations about the treaty calling for immunity from legal prosecution of WHO personnel. Why immunity for only WHO, he asks, and not other scientists, junior researchers etc. who may take contrarian positions? It is rich for WHO to demand immunity for itself while asking at the same time for power to censor and censure others, he adds.
Politicians are not opposing the treaty because they would like to be partners with WHO to share power. Both politicians and WHO failed to handle the Covid epidemic and their failures are glaring. The aggressive push for a global pandemic treaty, Dr Banerjee suggests, is most likely a reflexive action to fend off mounting criticism and evidence that WHO and the politicians botched up.
Country-specific audits, consultations with experts in each country and collaboration, not control, should be the key in preparing for health emergencies. The global pandemic treaty, he feels, is hasty, too sweeping and too risky.