A global bio-safety treaty

6 June 2020

Diplomatic fantasy or politically inevitable? An enhanced evidence-based international regulatory system can never guarantee a future free from pandemics, but it could help

Josh Arnold-Forster

Given the dramatic initial consequences of the COVID-19 crisis thus far, a lively debate about how to reduce the risk of the next global pandemic has already begun. In early May, the influential Policy Exchange think-tank published a comprehensive paper that included a call for an international convention to prevent against zoonotic diseases – that is to say, diseases that can be transmitted from animals to people.

Meanwhile, later in May, the 73rd assembly meeting of the World Health Assembly (the forum by  which the World Health Organisation (WHO) is governed) approved a resolution calling for an evaluation of, amongst other things the functioning of the organisation’s International Health Regulations. These regulations are designed to provide an international legal framework for encouraging states to prevent, detect, report, and respond to public health threats.

At the time of writing, there seems to be little current appetite amongst governments to adopt the Policy Exchangeproposals or to transform the International Health Regulations into international legal obligations. It is hard to say if this reluctance will last, as the worst effects of the crisis unfold. It is indeed possible that the current tragedy will lead to demands for some form of tougher international regulatory structure, possibly even going further than what has been proposed, and a properly funded, effective and transparently verifiable Global Bio-safety Treaty (GBT) could result from the inevitable rallying cry for change that will follow the pandemic.

Whatever new arrangements emerge will, of course, not entirely eliminate the risk of another pandemic. Predicting the emergence of new diseases, especially those coming from zoonotic transmission, is notoriously difficult. Recent years have also exposed the additional political problem of maintaining adherence to international treaties and laws, particularly given the onset of President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ strategy and President Xi becoming President for life. Scarcely ten years ago, hardly anyone would have predicted that a US President would even suggest that his country could withdraw from NATO or that China might impose a highly repressive security law on Hong Kong.

Despite this depressing background, the good news is that there are a variety of global regulatory structures and understandings that attract little attention but that have already been highly effective. The safe operation of air travel and of Soviet-era nuclear reactors as well as the phasing out of chemicals that cause ozone depletion are all examples of successful international cooperation. What prevents similar cooperation from emerging to reduce the risk of another pandemic?

No doubt this issue was discussed on the margins at the recent WHO Assembly meeting, although as it was a virtual event, chatting during the coffee break was presumably quite constrained. However, perhaps sooner than many diplomats anticipate, there may be formal proposals emerging from the international community regarding ‘the next pandemic’, as pressure from electorates and business interests alike will be difficult to ignore While some politicians might assume that many citizens are generally uninterested in global issues,  this is a less sustainable position when the issue has a clear and demonstrable impact on people’s day-to-day lives, such as climate change or global health.

The challenge for some leaders will be that their acquisition and maintenance of power depends, at least in part, upon an appeal to a false notion of nationalism that undermines international cooperation. How willing are the current political regimes in Russia, China and the US to agree to intrusive verification of new and much tougher international regulations on bio-safety? Perhaps the UK Government also needs to consider the same question. After all it would be counter-productive if the UK Government called for the closure of wet markets or for bans on the sale of bush meat in other countries unless it was prepared to accept similar regulatory frameworks at home.

Would the British Government and the British public accept restrictions on the consumption of certain types of British wild game and little or no notice inspections by teams of international experts of supermarket supply chains, farmers’ markets and abattoirs? Will we accept international regulations on livestock management, and its interaction with the natural environment? As the Policy Exchange paper demonstrates there is clear evidence that as commercial livestock rearing expands into new environments the risks of zoonotic transfer will only increase.

Such concepts, when supported by clear and transparent scientific evidence, might form the basis of a global structure of regulation that progressives can support. How it is enforced is obviously key to its success and popularity. One radical way forward could be to emulate the examples of recent UK legislation on bribery and modern slavery, or in France with the prosecution of directors and managers for corporate responsibility for a string of suicides at France Télécom. The same principle regarding the enforcement of international biosafety law could be applied to senior government officials and ministers, whereby leaders are found personally responsible if they wilfully fail to take reasonable steps to prevent poor health and sanitation practices that lead to a calamity such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

We should also remember that despite their best intentions governments can only do so much. What is absolutely essential is properly funded and effectively implemented global public education initiatives to raise awareness of the risks of zoonotic diseases and other biohazards. Building trust and demonstrating authenticity across a range of diverse audiences will not be easy, but it is not impossible.

Of course, the scientific and other evidence, including the WHO evaluation emerging from the current crisis, may point to completely different approaches to improving global biosafety. Highly intrusive verification may not be the best method, and other voluntary or private sector-driven systems may be more effective. However, we must not allow arguments about market freedoms or national sovereignty to be an obstacle to improving international biosafety. The general principle of having a much more effective, legally enforceable, and properly funded global structure to reduce the risks of new pandemics could be publicly endorsed by governments immediately, which would not detract from the measures already being taken to tackle COVID-19.

Even a mere four months ago, ideas such as those contained in the Policy Exchange paper would have been dismissed by many as extremist and political fantasy, and many others would suggest that is still the case. Nevertheless, politics is the art of the possible. Nowhere has escaped the impact of this pandemic, and the global death toll now stands at over 300,000 people and continues to grow, and the economic and social consequences are unprecedented in modern times. History teaches us that in such circumstances radical and transformative political change is possible, and sometimes inevitable.

An enhanced, evidence-based international regulatory system can never guarantee a future free from pandemics, but it could at least help to detect, prevent and mitigate their worst affects. Progressives can lead the way in calling for greater global coordination in this field, by calling for a robust Global Bio-Safety treaty to plan for, and to potentially prevent, the next pandemic.