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The logo for the World Health Organization Info application is displayed on a computer screen Bern, Switzerland, on March 31, 2020.
The logo for the World Health Organization Info application is displayed on a computer screen Bern, Switzerland, on March 31, 2020. (Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg)

Countries edged closer to support the idea of a treaty to help avoid future pandemics as more cases of the new omicron strain of COVID-19 popped up around the world.

World Health Organization member states are starting a three-day summit in Geneva on Monday to decide on a proposal that would begin the process of drafting such an agreement, which will take years. A proposal was reached over the weekend that represents a "consensus text," Gabby Stern, the head of communications for the WHO, said on Twitter Sunday.

"We shouldn't need another wake-up call," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told member countries Monday, urging a legally binding treaty. "Omicron's very emergence is another reminder that while many of us think that we are done with COVID-19, it's not done with us."

Reluctance from some countries, including the U.S. and Russia, has delayed progress on the idea. But last week, health ministers from 32 nations including Germany, the U.K., South Korea and Turkey signed an article in the BMJ medical journal in favor of a legally binding agreement.

While the proposal Sunday didn't explicitly call it such and was short of details, it referred to the WHO's powers to help adopt international treaties. The BMJ document called for a start to drafting the treaty next year and a goal of voting on an agreement in 2024.

Negotiating such international deals takes time. The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control came into force in 2005, for instance, a decade after the idea was proposed.

The world hasn't moved swiftly enough to make a new plan for pandemics, according to former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who headed an independent panel that criticized the response to COVID-19.

The international system, the panel said, remains unfit to avoid another disease from spiraling into one matching COVID-19. Their report proposed a fund of at least $10 billion annually for pandemic preparedness and a pool of as much as $100 billion that would be available in the case of a specific threat.


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