Rich nations must do more to fight pandemics -WHO draft treaty

People pose with syringe with needle in front of displayed WHO logo

By Jennifer Rigby and Emma Farge

LONDON (Reuters) -Richer countries should be asked to better pull their weight in helping the world cope with pandemics, according to a new draft of a treaty being negotiated at the World Health Organization.

Countries with more "capacities and resources" should bear a "commensurate degree" of responsibility for preparing for and responding to global health threats, the document, seen by Reuters on Tuesday, suggests.

The treaty, a legally binding agreement being negotiated by WHO member states, aims to address what it calls the "catastrophic failure" of the international community to fight COVID-19 fairly around the world.

COVID has killed around 7 million people since it emerged in China at the end of 2019, disrupting the global economy and ravaging communities. More than 750 million infections have been reported.

On the sidelines of the WHO's annual assembly in Geneva, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra struck an upbeat note, saying countries would stick to the current negotiating timeline and adopt the accord at the same meeting next year.

"We feel good. The U.S. is ready," he told reporters, adding that the next global health threat was "probably not far away".

Washington had initially expressed reservations about a legally-binding accord and some Republicans continue to lobby against it.

The 42-page document sent to member states and non-governmental organisations on Tuesday was drawn up based on suggestions from all member states in response to previous versions of the text. Countries have the option to remove numerous paragraphs from it in future negotiations, including the one about responsibilities.

The next round of talks is in June.

Sections that have proved controversial in earlier drafts, including around intellectual property and reserving 20% of tests, treatments and vaccines for the WHO to distribute in poorer countries during emergencies, remain in the new draft but could still be removed. No such provision on pandemic countermeasures existed during COVID.

A clause in an earlier draft obliging pharmaceutical companies to make details of their deals with governments public appears to have been dropped.

The document also defines "pandemic" - one of several sticking points that have already taken up negotiating time - as "the global spread of a pathogen or variant" that spreads easily, is dangerous, overwhelms health systems, and requires international coordination.

(Reporting by Jennifer Rigby in London and Emma Farge in Geneva; editing by John Stonestreet and Deepa Babington)