TThis week, health officials from around the world are meeting – virtually – in Geneva to discuss plans for a global pandemic preparedness contract. This is an essential endeavor as the world struggles to find a way through the current pandemic, in a race against time to get vaccines to everyone who needs them.
this Special session The World Health Assembly will be an opportunity to share lessons from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and lay the foundations for tackling the next major outbreak.
While finding solutions to equal opportunities in vaccines is a crucial consideration for the assembly, it is also important that it learn from it how innovations have led to the provision of safe and effective vaccines in record time. Innovation is closely related to preparing for a pandemic, and the role of pathogen exchange in support of that innovation is a priority to be considered.
In the interests of global public health, researchers need to be able to share information on dangerous viruses, bacteria and other pathogens across borders as soon as an outbreak is detected. When researchers withhold or delay the exchange of pathogens, they increase the severity of an outbreak.
Consider how the rapid exchange 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 have posted the genetic sequence from SARS-CoV-2 into a public database.
A few weeks later, several biopharmaceutical companies had identified their first vaccine candidates. And less than a year after the novel coronavirus was discovered, the Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine for use in the United States today. 23 vaccines are approved worldwide and more than 100 more are in clinical development. All of this is possible because scientists were quick to exchange information about the novel coronavirus and its subsequent variants.
Had scientists withheld the virus and information about its mutations, efforts to develop and use vaccines and therapeutics – and track the spread of the virus – would have been set back months or even years. The death toll from Covid-19 would be immeasurably higher and the world could still be locked almost permanently.
In the context of future pandemic preparedness, any possible delay in the exchange of pathogens and their information would run counter to the efforts of the Group of Seven – supported by the life science industry – to develop vaccines, diagnostics and treatments within 100 days.
Unfortunately, a scenario in which harmful pathogens could be hoarded and used as bargaining chips by countries that could spark a pandemic in the world is not a fiction. Actually, under certain interpretations an international agreement commonly known as Nagoya Protocol, Countries could choose to keep pathogen data and samples to themselves. This potential scenario and the need for a rapid exchange of information will be considered in the World Health Assembly’s pandemic preparation discussions.
The Nagoya Protocol is a supplement to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Its declared aim is to enable countries to preserve biodiversity and to share in all the advantages that result from the use of their “genetic resources” – be it plants, fungi or different types of wild animals. It is a laudable goal.
but several nations interpreted the Nagoya Protocol to extend to pathogens and issued guidelines preventing the exchange of pathogen samples or data on them, even if doing so 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 instance Pathogen reluctance occurred after an Ebola outbreak began in West Africa towards the end of 2013. In each of these cases, the ability of the scientific community to contain outbreaks, track the spread of disease, and treat patients has been hampered.
Besides being deeply worrying, these actions completely misinterpret the Nagoya Protocol. Pathogens do not belong to any country and do not deserve the protection or reward of biodiversity. We shouldn’t try to preserve their biodiversity – on the contrary.
Nor are they “genetic resources” as a seed or an animal could be. They pose a public health threat and should be eradicated like landmines. It is ridiculous to create a situation where a country is allowed to exercise sovereignty over dangerous pathogens – especially when it threatens human life. However, by failing to specifically exclude pathogens, the Convention on Biological Diversity has enabled countries to do just that.
Given the way some governments interpret the Nagoya Protocol, the world is lucky that China does not claim sovereignty over SARS-CoV-2. It is madness to leave such an important subject to chance. In the event of another pandemic, one country could exercise its “rights” to virus samples and keep the rest of the world in the dark.
The upcoming Geneva meeting is a valuable opportunity for political leaders to send a clear message on behalf of public health and global health security. To that end, members of the World Health Assembly must ensure that a strong commitment to the exchange of pathogens and information is part of any international pandemic preparedness agreement. Such a requirement would make it mandatory that data on dangerous viruses, bacteria and microorganisms be published as soon as possible after a new pathogen is discovered – regardless of where that discovery took place.
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to make clear, infectious diseases are crossing borders. This is why a pandemic preparation agreement is such an important tool in getting it right. While we still have a lot to learn about how to respond to future pandemics, the obligation to share pathogens and their information is one thing that we know will make a significant difference in the future. It must be adopted by all countries participating in the World Health Assembly.
Let us hope that all countries that apply the principles of the Nagoya Protocol to human pathogens will reconsider their position, exempt pathogens from the bilateral rules of any relevant legislation and related negotiations, and commit to prompt and predictable access to pathogen samples and information to facilitate.
Thomas B. Cueni is General Director of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations. The opinions expressed here are his own.