WHO director calls for world pandemic treaty to prepare for Disease X

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World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus has called on countries to sign on to the health organization’s pandemic treaty so the world can prepare for “Disease X.”

Ghebreyesus, speaking in front of an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday, said that he hoped countries would reach a pandemic agreement by May to address this “common enemy.”

Disease X is a hypothetical “placeholder” virus that has not yet been formed, but scientists say it could be 20 times deadlier than COVID-19. It was added to the WHO’s short list of pathogens for research in 2017 that could cause a “serious international epidemic,” according to a 2022 WHO press release.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of World Health Organization speaking

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of World Health Organization (WHO), has called on countries to sign on the health organization’s pandemic treaty so the world can prepare for a placeholder virus called “Disease X.” (Hollie Adams/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

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Ghebreyesus said that COVID-19 was the first Disease X, but it’s important to prepare for another pandemic.

“There are things that are unknown that may happen, and anything happening is a matter of when, not if, so we need to have a placeholder for that, for the diseases we don’t know,” Ghebreyesus said.

“We lost many people [during COVID] because we couldn’t manage them,” Ghebreyesus said at the global confab. “They could have been saved, but there was no space. There was not enough oxygen. So how can you have a system that can expand when the need comes?” 

He said that a shared response via the treaty would help the world better react to another outbreak. 

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“The pandemic agreement can bring all the experience, all the challenges that we have faced and all the solutions into one,” Ghebreyesus said. “That agreement can help us to prepare for the future in a better way.”

Person holding syringe with WHO logo

A person holding a medical syringe and a COVID-19 vaccine vial in front of the World Health Organization logo displayed on a screen. (Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“This is a common global interest, and very narrow national interests should not come into the way.”

Ghebreyesus said that independent panels and experts have been working on ways to respond in a collective fashion and that a deadline for the treaty to be signed is in May.

He said that some of the preparedness responses could include an early-warning system, organizing supply chains and advancing research and development to test drugs. Primary health care would need to be looked at, too, given that wealthy countries did not fare well during COVID, since they struggled with basics like contact tracing.

“It’s better to anticipate something that may happen because it has happened in our history many times, and prepare for it. We should not face things unprepared; we can prepare for some unknown things, as well.” 

World leaders met in March 2021 to announce that a treaty was being negotiated and drafted.

“The main goal of this treaty would be to foster an all-of-government and all-of-society approach, strengthening national, regional and global capacities and resilience to future pandemics,” a statement put out by two dozen heads of state reads. 

little girl wearing mask at school

A six-year-old girl wearing a reusable protective face mask while working at her desk in school. The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) has called on countries to sign the health organization’s pandemic treaty so the world can prepare for a hypothetical virus called “Disease X.” (iStock)

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“This includes greatly enhancing international co-operation to improve, for example, alert systems, data-sharing, research and local, regional and global production and distribution of medical and public health countermeasures such as vaccines, medicines, diagnostics and personal protective equipment.”

The Biden administration was negotiating the global pandemic treaty last year. GOP critics have said that such an agreement would cede sovereignty to the WHO.

“The World Health Organization pandemic treaty is very vague, it affects our sovereignty, and it could be exploited to tell Americans what kind of health care they need in the event of a global pandemic,” Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., said at a May press conference.  

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