The importance of getting the ethics right in a pandemic treaty

The Lancet Infectious Diseases (forthcoming)
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The COVID-19 pandemic revealed numerous weaknesses in pandemic preparedness and response, including underfunding, inadequate surveillance, and inequitable distribution of countermeasures. To overcome these weaknesses for future pandemics, WHO released a zero draft of a pandemic treaty in February, 2023, and subsequently a revised bureau's text in May, 2023. COVID-19 made clear that pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response reflect choices and value judgements. These decisions are therefore not a purely scientific or technical exercise, but are fundamentally grounded in ethics. The latest treaty draft reflects these ethical considerations by including a section entitled Guiding Principles and Approaches. Most of these principles are ethical—they establish core values that undergird the treaty. Unfortunately, the treaty draft's set of principles are numerous, overlapping, and show inadequate coherence and consistency. We propose two improvements to this section of the draft pandemic treaty. First, key guiding ethical principles should be clearer and more precise than they currently are. Second, the link between ethical principles and policy implementation should be clearly established and define boundaries on acceptable interpretation, ensuring that signatories abide by these principles.



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G. Owen Schaefer
National University of Singapore
Caesar Alimsinya Atuire
University of Ghana
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