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WHO Pandemic Treaty Faces Little Opposition in Canada as US Politicians Concerned About ‘Sovereignty’ Push Back

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The World Health Organization concluded a meeting on March 3 to advance negotiations on the global governance of pandemic responses. If the event flew under the radar in Canada, Republican politicians in the U.S. have taken a position against the treaty, expressing concern about its implications on their country’s sovereignty in policy-making.

The World Health Organization (WHO) published on Feb. 1 its “Zero Draft” as the basis of negotiations for a future international instrument to manage pandemics.

It sets out broad principles such as respect for human rights and a list of progressive themes, while also touching upon issues such as vaccine management and combatting “misinformation.”

The WHO’s fourth meeting of its intergovernmental negotiating body (INB4) taking place this week started to consider the Draft.

Seventeen U.S. Republican senators reacted and introduced a bill on Feb. 15 seeking to shield their country from the reach of the eventual agreement.

“The WHO, along with our federal health agencies, failed miserably in their response to COVID-19,” said Sen. Ron Johnson. “This failure should not be rewarded with a new international treaty that would increase the WHO’s power at the expense of American sovereignty.”

This goes against the will of the Biden Administration, which held a strategic dialogue with the WHO in September where they agreed on strengthening global capacities to respond to pandemics.

The Canadian government is also favourable to the development of a pandemic treaty under the WHO.

The negotiated treaty is to be legally binding, but the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) says on its website that the WHO “has no jurisdiction in Canada, and Canada will remain in control of any future domestic decisions about national restrictions or other measures related to pandemics.”

When asked about this potential contradiction, PHAC spokeswoman Anna Maddison said that Canada always considers the potential impacts on domestic laws and policies when negotiating a new international instrument.

“The Government of Canada will seek to ensure that the development of a new pandemic instrument continues to respect our health, social, economic, and security contexts,” she said.

There is hence still a grey area on the issue of national sovereignty, which also appears in the Zero Draft.

The Draft’s guiding principle on sovereignty says that states have the right to determine their own approaches to public health in accordance with rules of international law, “provided that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to their peoples and other countries.”

PHAC would not say whether there’s a specific area of the Draft that the Canadian government disagrees with, only that INB4 is an opportunity to better understand potential implications for the country.

PHAC also didn’t say if there’s a scenario under which it wouldn’t support a treaty or accord.

“Canada is supportive of the process to develop and negotiate the pandemic instrument and participates in all negotiations in good faith,” said Maddison.

Conservative MP Leslyn Lewis has been one rare voice in Canada opposing the future treaty.

“Canada must be careful to not sign anything that could give away our sovereignty on health care, even if there is tremendous international pressure to do so for the sake of pandemic preparedness,” she wrote in September.

Guiding Principles

Other guiding principles of the Draft include “respect for human rights” and “transparency.”

There are also multiple progressive themes, such as “equity,” “inclusiveness,” “gender equality,” “non-discrimination and respect for diversity,” and “rights of individuals and groups at higher risk and in vulnerable situations.”

Areas in the draft that can arouse controversies include a focus on combatting “false, misleading, misinformation or disinformation” and encouraging vaccine uptake.

Each party is encouraged to “conduct regular social listening and analysis to identify the prevalence and profiles of misinformation, which contribute to design communications and messaging strategies for the public to counteract misinformation, disinformation and false news, thereby strengthening public trust,” says the draft.

“The Parties will contribute to research and inform policies on factors that hinder adherence to public health and social measures, confidence and uptake of vaccines, use of appropriate therapeutics and trust in science and government institutions.”

While seeking to increase vaccine uptake by combatting “misinformation,” the Draft also makes a foray into the area of accountability for vaccination programs.

It suggests establishing a global compensation mechanism for the vaccine injured and while this is pending, countries are to endeavour to exclude indemnity clauses of indefinite or excessive duration in contracts with manufacturers.

The Draft also recommends excluding confidentiality clauses.

This is a current issue in Canada, with opposition MPs wanting to see contracts with vaccine manufacturers.

The Liberal government says the contracts can only be shown if the MPs sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Liberal MP Anthony Housefather explained on Feb. 16 that this is because his government signed the contracts under unfavourable conditions.

“So that’s why these companies said, ‘If I’m going to deliver you this product that I haven’t tested in my normal way, I want to have different conditions’” he said.

The Draft also recommends greater oversight on laboratories that conduct gain-of-function research.

“Each Party shall, as applicable, implement and apply international standards for, oversight of and reporting on laboratories and research facilities that carry out work to genetically alter organisms to increase their pathogenicity and transmissibility, in order to prevent accidental release of these pathogens.”

Some evidence suggests that the SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID-19 could be the fruit of gain-of-function research and organizations such as the FBI and the U.S. Department of Energy assess that the virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.

Other U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that the initial SARS-CoV-2 infection was caused by natural exposure to an infected animal.

The next meeting of the INB is set for April and the WHO seeks the accord to be in place in 2024.

Kevin Stocklin contributed to this report.

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