Countries aren’t quite ready to cede all authority to the WHO just yet but in a few weeks most Western nations will sign

We’ve already written twice about the WHO pandemic treaty, the first time back in June 2022. It’s been a long time coming – but it’s now almost here, so it seems appropriate to write again.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s website, “member states are scheduled to consider the proposed text of the world’s first pandemic agreement for adoption” at the 77th World Health Assembly, running from May 27 to June 1.

That said, there’s been a last-minute twist to the saga. The latest draft of the proposed amendments to the International Health Regulations – which are one half of what’s on the table, along with the treaty itself – has been diluted from previous versions.

Most notably, the proposal to make the WHO’s recommendations (in a pandemic or health emergency) binding on member states has been dropped. Article 1 of the Regulations continues to define them as “non-binding”, like they’ve always been.

This was always the main fear among those objecting to the agreement, that it would compel countries to follow orders in the name of ‘pandemic preparedness’ – though the WHO’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (known as ‘Dr Tedros’) has insisted that the accord won’t compromise national sovereignty, going on X last November to rail against “misinformation”.

“Some argue that this agreement will undermine a country’s sovereignty… They claim that the WHO will be able to impose lockdowns or vaccine mandates on countries,” he tweeted.

“However, it is important to make it clear that these claims are completely unfounded, untrue, nonsense and have no basis in reality.

“To be clear, the accord does not grant the WHO any such authority.”

Sounds reassuring – though you have to wonder why these recent changes were even made, if the accord was incapable of affecting sovereignty in the first place.

One mustn’t be paranoid about these things. There are solid reasons why a global pandemic agreement could be useful.

An article in Politico last January (‘Why the world’s first pandemic treaty may never happen’) said the treaty “aims to prepare for the next global health emergency and prevent a repeat of what South Africa called ‘vaccine apartheid’, where countries had vastly unequal access to Covid vaccines and drugs”.

The article also lamented that countries were dragging their feet, “raising a real possibility that talks will break down and leave the world as unprepared as it was in 2020”.

Was the world really unprepared in 2020, though? It’s not like Covid was the first-ever pandemic. Most governments had contingency plans, which had been in place for years. They just chose not to follow them.

It’s also far from clear that more centralisation is the answer. After all, one big reason why we still don’t know if lockdowns made the situation better or worse is because everyone did the same thing.

It was just dumb luck that Sweden decided not to lock down, thereby providing a control group – not because of any rebellious streak, but because their laws place such matters entirely in the hands of the state epidemiologist.

After an early spike, the country ended up with average Covid deaths (about the same as Spain, which locked down hard) and extremely low all-cause excess deaths – by some measures, the lowest in Europe – over the course of the pandemic, suggesting they were right to go against the consensus.

What would happen next time? Even with non-binding recommendations, the WHO was already widely followed during Covid – and of course a pandemic treaty would only bolster its authority.

Article 13(5) of the amended Regulations states, for instance, that “when requested by WHO, States Parties shall [changed from ‘should’ in the old Regulations] provide, to the fullest extent possible within the means and resources at their disposal, support to WHO-coordinated response activities”.

What if a state doesn’t think there’s even an emergency, and wants to continue as normal? Articles 12 and 49 make that irrelevant: the director-general will invite the state(s) to “present their views” – but he or she “shall make the final determination on these matters”.

who director general tedros adhanom ghebreyesus speaks during an event during the imf spring meetings in washington

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

Despite all this, the truth is that no-one in Cyprus is discussing the WHO treaty or worrying about possible consequences – including our government.

“The health ministry is involved in the negotiations and keeping a close eye on developments, including the various revisions of the text of the accord,” a spokesperson from that ministry (which will represent the Cyprus government at the assembly this month) confirmed to the Cyprus Mail.

The statement adds that “it’s important to create a stronger international framework to reinforce prevention, preparedness and the response to future pandemics.” There’s no mention of potential downsides.

Why are people generally so unconcerned? One explanation is that they consider Covid to have been a once-in-a-century event, so whatever framework is put in place only applies to the distant future, and won’t affect them personally.

This is probably a mistake. Dr Tedros himself has repeatedly spoken of “the next pandemic”, warning (again, on X) that it’s “a matter of when, not if”.

Just last month, an article in the Financial Times led with the ominous headline: ‘The next pandemic is coming. Will we be ready?’. Various politicians – including, for instance, Kamala Harris – have passed the same message.

That said, there’s another explanation. Maybe people do indeed expect a so-called ‘Disease X’ to arrive sometime soon – but they also trust the WHO to deal with it, and welcome the idea of a one-size-fits-all global response.

Some would say the WHO had a disastrous pandemic, delaying or failing on every issue from airborne transmission to early treatment. Four years on from Covid, however, there still hasn’t been a proper accounting, and what happened in 2020-22 is becoming normalised.

In fact, if you asked 100 Cypriots, a majority would probably agree that the WHO-approved response to that pandemic – locking down society in order to slow down the spread, while waiting for life-saving vaccines – should also apply in case of future ones.

The opposition to the accord (which presumably is why it got diluted) shows that countries aren’t quite ready to cede all authority to the WHO just yet.

When push comes to shove, however, the agreement is likely to be signed at the assembly in a few weeks – and, though states will still have 18 months to back out, it’s unlikely to be rejected by any Western government, including ours.