The world desperately needs a pandemic agreement. Will we come together to save lives?

For more than two years, countries of the world have worked together toward one generational goal – to ensure we are better prepared for the next pandemic by learning the lessons from COVID-19.

At a time when conflicts, politics and economics have wrought destruction, discord and division, sovereign governments have found a way to work collaboratively to forge a new global agreement to protect the world from future, inevitable pandemic emergencies.

This essential effort, being driven by hundreds of negotiators tasked by more than 190 nations, was launched in the middle of the most devastating event in our lifetimes.

Based on official counts, COVID-19 left more than 7 million people dead worldwide. But the real toll is likely many times higher. It wiped billions, if not trillions, from the global economy. Social upheaval, from job losses to school closures, scarred communities across the globe.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with hospitals around the world crowded with patients being cared for by overstretched health workers, more than two dozen world leaders issued a global call to say never again.

They said their communities, and those of all nations, must never again be left so vulnerable to another pandemic. They concurred that governments must never again fail to cooperate in sharing vital information, medical equipment and medicines. And they stressed that the world’s poorest countries and communities cannot be left at the end of the queue again when it comes to access to lifesaving tools like vaccines.

Equity, we said then, and continue to say now, must be our guiding light.

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Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is the director-general of the World Health Organization.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is the director-general of the World Health Organization.

What was needed, the leaders said then, was a historic compact committing countries to work together, across frontiers, recognizing that deadly viruses do not respect the borders you live within, the color of your skin, or how much money is in your pocket.

This led the World Heath Organization’s 194 member states to launch two landmark, parallel, efforts: to negotiate a first ever pandemic agreement to prevent, prepare for and respond to pandemics, and make targeted amendments to the International Health Regulations, the global playbook that countries use to detect, alert and respond to public health emergencies.

These efforts were launched during a time when social and political division and polarization have created seemingly impenetrable barriers between many countries.

Rather than succumb to such geopolitics, however, these government-led efforts have brought nations together to make the world safer from the next pandemic.

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The outcomes of these vital negotiations are scheduled to be considered at the 77th World Health Assembly starting in Geneva on Monday.

With the finish line so close, the stakes facing the world have never been higher. Key issues remain to be resolved, above all when it comes to how the pandemic agreement will ensure equity for all countries when it comes to making them ready to prevent or respond to the next pandemic.

We can ready our health systems for the next pandemic

“Operationalizing” equity is a regular refrain during the talks.

This entails ensuring countries have real-time access to the capacities needed to protect their health workers and communities from a pandemic threat, so that we do not see a repeat of the inequities in access to vaccines, diagnostics, therapeutics and other vital tools.

Operationalizing equity is about countries having strong health systems to ensure collective prevention, preparedness and response to future pandemics, wherever they may emerge.

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Global health security depends on ensuring there are no weak links in the chain of defense against pathogens with pandemic potential; and global health equity is key to ensuring every link is strong.

It requires collaboration between countries to share what is needed, from pathogens and diagnostics, to information and resources, to work better together to prevent a repeat of the horrors caused by COVID-19.

And it is hallmarked by political leadership, from the highest levels of all countries, that ensures global collaboration will be strengthened to overcome the gaps the world faced during the COVID-19 response.

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The agreement provides the foundation on which to build the world’s future collaborative approach to preventing the next pandemic threat. It will fill the gaping hole COVID-19 laid bare in the world’s readiness to work together, effectively, to prevent the spread of life-threatening viruses.

It recognizes we can only truly have global health security when each and every country is stronger.

It reinforces global health security is stronger when there is real global health equity, reminding us all that no one is safe from a virus of pandemic potential until everyone is safe.

And global health equity will be stronger, and assured, with a pandemic accord.

This proposed agreement is not a piece of paper. It represents a lifesaving instrument setting out how countries will work together to respond to the next pandemic.

It will assure all people their sovereign government has reached a collective agreement with all other countries to save lives, protect health and avoid unnecessary disruptions to societies and economies.

In other words, the pandemic agreement is a lifesaving instrument, akin to a defibrillator for the world. This tool must be built and made available to benefit everyone, recognizing no one can be left behind. We all must agree on, and know, how to use it.

At a time of such global friction and tension, I salute all efforts by the international community to grasp this unique opportunity to make the world safe from pandemics. The weight of this shared responsibility is matched by the benefits that a strong agreement will provide for the health and security of all.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is the director-general of the World Health Organization.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: WHO pandemic agreement could save us from next COVID-19 disaster