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April 30, 2024

Behind the Scenes: The Georgetown University Community Contributes to Pandemic Accord Negotiations

With the International Health Regulations undergoing reforms and negotiations for the pandemic accord entering its last stages of negotiations, there is a palpable sense of urgency to finalize both treaties before the upcoming World Health Organization Annual Assembly in Geneva on May 27, 2024. Behind the scenes, Georgetown University faculty, staff, and students have been making significant contributions to these efforts. From professors like Rebecca Katz, Lawrence Gostin, and Matthew Kavanagh to fall 2023 GHI student fellow Bedima Duut (L’24), the Georgetown University community is playing an important role in promoting pandemic preparedness against future global health crises.

Flags from around the world
Flags from around the world

Treaty Negotiations Reach the Final Stretch

In 2021, the international community agreed on the need to develop an international agreement to enhance pandemic preparedness after witnessing a lack of preparedness and widespread inequities, particularly in vaccine access, during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, negotiations began on a new international pandemic agreement (also known as the “pandemic accord” or “pandemic treaty”) that would legally bind countries to monitor threats and build resilience against future health crises. In addition, in May 2022 the World Health Organization agreed to consider proposed amendments to the current International Health Regulations.

After two years of back and forth, Lawrence Gostin, the co-faculty director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown Law who has been closely involved with the drafting and negotiating of the pandemic treaty, explains that negotiations are now at a perilous and pivotal juncture.

“There is a huge trust deficit between the parties, especially the Global North and South. On the most basic level, the Global North wants open scientific exchange while the Global South wants fair allocation of lifesaving medical countermeasures.”

The disagreements deepen on the issue of sharing biological samples and associated data with a centralized system (a system referred to as Pathogen Access and Benefits Sharing or PABS). The difficulties witnessed in the negotiations thus far raise serious concerns surrounding whether or not an agreement on the text can be reached.

A Multidisciplinary Perspective on Pandemic Preparedness

Georgetown University faculty members have been active in the global effort to drive change in global health preparedness. In supporting the U.S. State Department, Professor Rebecca Katz, who also directs Georgetown’s Center for Global Health Science and Security, helped draft the initial U.S. submissions for amendments to the International Health Regulations and the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body. As part of the technical advisory panel for the Pandemic Fund, Katz contributed to the discussions on financing currently under debate in the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body.

“Sustainable financing for pandemic preparedness and response is essential to the success of any future agreement and national level capacity building, and we are keen to enforce critical linkages to the Pandemic Fund.”

Gostin, who sits on the World Health Organization International Health Regulations Review Committee, has collaborated on enacting recommendations for the World Health Organization and its member states that encourage them to adopt key amendments. He has also been working closely with the World Health Organization’s legal team and the head of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body on the pandemic treaty, as well as supporting the U.S. government through discussions with negotiators and the White House. Throughout these endeavors, Gostin has counted on the invaluable support of Georgetown faculty and staff, including from Georgetown Law and the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. He has worked closely with Sam Halabi, director of the Center for Transformational Health Law at the O’Neill Institute and a professor at the School of Health. Together Gostin, Halabi, and Visiting Professor Jayashree Watal recently co-authored an article in the Geneva Health Files about the pathogen access-and-benefit sharing system.

One of Gostin’s most engaged collaborators has been Bedima Duut (L’24), a fall 2023 Global Health Institute student fellow. As a GHI student fellow, Duut had the opportunity to support Gostin’s work on the October 2023 draft of the pandemic treaty related to international humanitarian law and health, as well as migration and health.

Assistant Professor Matthew Kavanagh directs the Center for Global Health Policy and Politics, a cross-campus collaboration between the School of Health and the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law. The center’s team has been providing expert advice to several countries in Africa and Latin America on issues of pandemic preparedness financing, access to medicines, and compliance mechanisms. In addition, they have been working through the G20 process to support innovative thinking on financing.

Getting Involved and Learning More

Georgetown students interested in the global health governance of diseases have many avenues for involvement, including:

Lastly, Georgetown students can stay up to date on the pandemic accord negotiations by following the research and teaching of global health faculty on campus. With another worldwide outbreak constantly on the horizon, the more our future global health leaders can learn today the better prepared the world will be to navigate challenges ahead.