International Response to Pandemics: Is there a need for a new international institution?

By Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, Senior Advisor, The Council on Strategic Risks

The whole world is suffering from the devastating effects of the coronavirus.

The human losses can only be compared with the consequences of a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) use. No country is immune, regardless of its power and wealth.

Most striking and indeed frustrating is that the world was totally unprepared to respond effectively to such a pandemic, in spite of several warnings over the past years. National or international response measures were probably considered too costly by our governments and were not seen as a priority. This was a miscalculation and it must be remedied. The current crisis will certainly have an impact on decision makers and hopefully, in addition to domestic measures, they will consider establishing an effective international response mechanism – a mechanism that can provide the chance to contain and eradicate future epidemics right at the beginning before they spread elsewhere and turn into a pandemic.

Governments should not wait until the next such outbreak to erupt before they act. In view of the diversity of their effects and possible solutions, pandemics must be addressed as global security problems. A global threat naturally requires a global response.

The response needs to be swift and effective, multi-disciplinary and science-based, and involving all relevant institutions and stakeholders, including when necessary the military establishments. It requires the full transparency, engagement and cooperation of all countries, and most importantly of those which are close to the region where the disease emerges. Guidelines for initial domestic measures and international cooperation need to be developed and tested through regular exercises among countries. The coordination would best be ensured by a new international institution. All of this cannot be accomplished overnight. It requires tremendous efforts and resources and above all political will and leadership.

I believe that the current crisis justifies the creation of an international organisation specifically dealing with the response to pandemics. It should be intergovernmental but with the participation of the global scientific community and the pharmaceutical industry. Relevant NGOs and foundations must be engaged. It should be a public-private enterprise.

The organisation should be autonomous, with its own budget and decision making organs. It should cooperate with the UN, WHO and other relevant agencies. The Secretariat has to be small, compact, and staffed with professional, competent experts. There should be a Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) composed of eminent virologists from member states which would regularly meet to follow the scientific and technological developments and provide advice to the countries. In times of crises the SAB would need to be in permanent sitting. Its recommendations should ensure a cohesive approach and enhance the effectiveness at a global scale.

A Situation Centre (SITCEN) at the Headquarters of the organisation should monitor the situation in the world 24/7. The member countries should commit themselves to reporting without delay any emergency in their territories. They should also have the obligation to receive a Rapid Response Assistance Team (RRAT) from the organisation at short notice. This team of first responders should be fully equipped and trained for deployment to any country where the risk of an epidemic is reported. The local authorities should be instructed to cooperate with the RRAT and implement the measures it recommends. The RRAT should be in constant contact with the HQ, particularly with the SAB. The samples collected by the RRAT should be analyzed by the designated laboratories certified by a Central Laboratory. The experts of the Secretariat should also be employed to run training activities for capacity building in member countries.

What I have described here is an adaptation of the structures which already exist and work well at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to respond to any release of toxic chemicals, deliberate or accidental. They can be emulated by the new organisation against pandemics. The OPCW, which I had the privilege of managing for eight years, is recognized as a successful international Organisation and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013.

The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) may provide the legal framework for a new institution. Article X of the BWC and possibly an additional protocol to be negotiated would serve the purpose. UNAIDS in Geneva may also serve as a model. It is essential, however, that governments refrain from getting involved in long and painful negotiations at this point. Nobody knows how long the Covid-19 crisis will last, when a vaccine will be discovered and made available, and whether the virus will mutate and be resurrected. There is no time to waste.

There are several observations and indeed speculations in regard to the post-coronavirus world. But one thing is certain; it will be different from what came before. How will domestic and international politics be affected? Will the nationalists or the internationalists prevail? Will globalization be reversed? What will be the new priorities of governments? Nobody has the answers.

What is predictable, however, is that people will expect their political authorities to make every effort to better protect lives. Hence, there will be strong public support for domestic as well as international endeavors to counter such global threats. Leadership will be required. The world will probably turn to the US but the current administration is unlikely to assume such a role. The responsibility may be assumed by a coalition of the willing composed of the European Union, ASEAN, the United Kingdom, Japan and Australia. China and the Russian Federation may not wish to share a leadership role for their own reasons at the initial stage but will certainly not stay away. The US will also be involved due to the pressure of its own civil society. Once the political will is assured at the highest level the rest can be left to diplomats and experts with clear instructions to conclude the preparatory work within a few months.

It is time to turn tragedy into opportunity by taking decisive actions.

* This article is part of the Council on Strategic Risks’ “Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent” Blog Series, designed to increase the tempo and scale of relevant and useful analysis during a time of crisis

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