World Politics

Calls for global 'pandemic treaty' grow as anxiety swells over Covid origins

Key Points
  • A global "pandemic treaty" has been proposed in a bid to ensure more transparency about future pandemics.
  • This comes amid unease over China's reluctance to share information about the coronavirus outbreak.
  • The U.K. and U.S. have voiced concern over the level of access that was afforded to a World Health Organization mission to China, aimed at discovering the origins of the coronavirus.
People walk down an alleyway decorated with red lanterns, or hong denglong, during the Chinese New Year holiday, also known as the Spring Festival, ushering in the Year of the Ox, at a commercial and tourist area on February 16, 2021 in Beijing, China.
Kevin Frayer | Getty Images News | Getty Images

LONDON — A global "pandemic treaty" has been proposed in a bid to ensure more transparency about future pandemics amid unease over China's reluctance to share information about the coronavirus outbreak.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is among those calling for an international treaty on pandemics that would see countries agreeing to share data about outbreaks of viruses and infectious diseases.

Johnson backed the proposal on Monday after the U.K. and U.S. voiced concern over the level of access that was afforded to a World Health Organization mission to China, aimed at discovering the origins of the coronavirus that first appeared in Wuhan in late 2019.

"I think what the world needs to see is a general agreement on how we track data surrounding zoonotic pandemics, we want zoonotic research hubs around the world, and we want a general agreement on transparency," Johnson said at a press briefing.

"I think one of the attractive ideas that we have seen in the last few months has been a proposal for a global treaty on pandemics, so that signatory countries make sure that they contribute all the data they have and we are able to get to the bottom of what's happened and stop it happening again," he said. It's "the sensible thing to do."

Johnson is not the first to call for more transparency surrounding disease outbreaks. In December, the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, called for "an international treaty on pandemics within the framework of the WHO."

"The number of epidemics has multiplied in recent decades," Michel said at the time. "We knew the world was not immune to a major pandemic. Yet we were caught off guard. This is a form of failure, and we will have to learn the lessons and draw the conclusions from it."  He tweeted on the subject last week, and welcomed Johnson's comments this week.

'Deep concerns'

Fears over transparency about pandemics come amid concerns that the WHO's fact-finding mission wasn't able to go to China until last month, more than a year after coronavirus outbreak emerged in Wuhan and only after protracted negotiations with Beijing to allow it to investigate. The investigators were not given full access to data that could help it better understand the origins of Covid-19.

After four weeks of investigations, the WHO mission said last week that the virus "most likely" originated in animals and spread to humans, and it dismissed a lab leak theory. One member of WHO's delegation has since said that China refused to give them access to all the raw data they had requested. Dominic Dwyer, an Australian infectious diseases expert and member of the WHO delegation, told Reuters on Saturday that China had refused access to raw data requested on early infections.

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WHO says Covid ‘most likely’ originated in animals and spread to humans

China's refusal was also reported by The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The country's foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters, but China has previously defended its cooperation with the WHO.

The U.K. and U.S. voiced what the White House described as "deep concerns" about the way the findings of the WHO's Covid-19 report were communicated.

White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement Saturday that it is imperative that the WHO's report be independent and free from "alteration by the Chinese government."

"To better understand this pandemic and prepare for the next one, China must make available its data from the earliest days of the outbreak. Going forward, all countries, including China, should participate in a transparent and robust process for preventing and responding to health emergencies — so that the world learns as much as possible as soon as possible," he said.

A medical worker takes a swab sample from a student to be tested for the Covid-19 coronavirus at Wuhan University, on the first day of classes in Wuhan on June 8, 2020.
STR | AFP via Getty Images

U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab echoed those sentiments on Sunday, telling the BBC that Britain shares "concerns that they get full cooperation and they get the answers they need, and so we'll be pushing for it to have full access."

China's reaction

China has not responded to these comments, but last week, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the findings of the WHO mission in China, alongside those of Chinese experts, provided "important clues for us to get a better understanding of the coronavirus, better combat the pandemic and guard against future risk, and sets the ground for global efforts on origin-tracing going forward."

China has repeatedly stressed that the coronavirus could have originated elsewhere. That sentiment was echoed by Wang, who said "there are also a number of clues, reports, and studies that suggest the outbreaks began in multiple locations around the world as early as the second half of 2019."

Peter Ben Embarek speaks during a press conference to wrap up a visit by an international team of experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) in the city of Wuhan, in China's Hubei province on February 9, 2021.
Hector Retamal | AFP | Getty Images

The spokesman added that "origin-tracing is a complex scientific issue involving many countries and regions, and it should be carried out by global scientists in collaboration." He said the Chinese government "has provided strong support and assistance for the WHO mission."

On Monday, the British prime minister said he thought it was "fairly obvious that most of the evidence seems to point to the disease having originated in Wuhan."

"Therefore I think we all need to see as much as we possibly can about how that might have happened, the zoonotic questions that people are asking. I think we need as much data as possible," Johnson said.

Five-point plan

The U.K. currently holds the presidency of the Group of Seven, an intergovernmental organization that includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.S., and looks set to use a meeting on Friday to push for a treaty.

The U.K. government said in a statement Saturday that Johnson "will call for a new, global approach to pandemics that learns lessons from the division that characterised the initial international response to the coronavirus pandemic."

"International pandemic preparedness will be a major priority for the UK's G7 Presidency" it said, and Johnson would look to work with fellow G-7 leaders to implement a five-point plan that was announced at the U.N. General Assembly last year.

"The five point plan includes a worldwide network of zoonotic research hubs, developing global manufacturing capacity for treatments and vaccines, the design of a global pandemic early warning system, the agreement of global protocols for a future health emergency and the reduction of trade barriers."