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Protecting world from future pandemic emergencies

By Chukwuma Muanya
17 March 2023   |   3:05 am
Countries of the World Health Organisation (WHO) have begun negotiations on a global accord on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response, using the “zero draft” as a basis for negotiating an agreement to protect nations and communities from future pandemic emergencies.

COVID-19 preparedness and response: Implications for future pandemics CREDIT:

Countries of the World Health Organisation (WHO) have begun negotiations on a global accord on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response, using the “zero draft” as a basis for negotiating an agreement to protect nations and communities from future pandemic emergencies.

Discussions on the draft pandemic accord took place during the weeklong fourth meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body (INB), which includes WHO’s 194 countries. Negotiations on the draft will continue over the next year according to a timetable laid out by the World Health Assembly.

Co-Chair of the INB Bureau, from the Netherlands, Mr. Roland Driece, said: “The start of discussions of concrete language for the WHO pandemic accord sends a clear signal that countries of the world want to work together for a safer, healthier future where we are better prepared for, and able to prevent future pandemic threats, and respond to them effectively and equitably.”

Fellow INB Bureau and Co-Chair, Ms. Precious Matsoso of South Africa, said: “The efforts this week, by countries from around the world, was a critical step in ensuring we do not repeat the mistakes of the COVID-19 pandemic response, including in sharing life-saving vaccines, provision of information and development of local capacities.

“That we have been able to move forward so decisively is testimony to the global consensus that exists on the need to work together and to strengthen WHO’s and the international community’s ability to protect the world from pandemic threats,” Matsoso said.

WHO Member States will continue negotiations of the zero draft of the pandemic accord at the INB’s next meeting, to be held over April 3-6, with a view to collecting all inputs necessary to develop the first draft.

According to the process agreed by governments at a special session of the World Health Assembly (WHA) in late 2021, negotiations on the draft pandemic accord will aim to produce a final draft for consideration by the 77th World Health Assembly in 2024.

During the week, the senior diplomats from Israel and Morocco, who are serving as co-facilitators of the United Nations General Assembly High-Level Meeting on Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness, and Response, briefed the INB on their preparations for the 20 September meeting, to ensure collaboration between the processes.

In parallel with the pandemic accord negotiations, governments are also discussing more than 300 amendments to the International Health Regulations (2005) in an effort to make the world safer from communicable diseases and ensuring greater equity in the global response to public health emergencies.

Governments have been working to ensure consistency and alignment across the INB and IHR processes. The proposed IHR amendments will also be presented to the World Health Assembly in 2024, and would together, with a future pandemic accord, provide a comprehensive, complementary, and synergistic set of global health agreements.

Meanwhile, a bird flu strain that claimed the life of a schoolgirl in Cambodia has evolved to better infect human cells, in a worrying sign. Scientists on the ground who made the discovery said the finding “needs to be treated with the utmost concern.”

They added that there were “some indications” the virus had already “gone through” a human and picked up the new mutations before infecting the girl.
The 11-year-old girl, from Prey Veng province, last week became the first victim of H5N1 in 2023. Her father has also tested positive for the virus but has not developed symptoms.

Dr. Erik Karlsson, who led the team at the Pasteur Institute of Cambodia that decoded the genetic sequence of the girl’s virus, warned that it differed from that taken from birds. He told Sky News: “There are some indications that this virus has gone through a human.

“Any time these viruses get into a new host they’ll have certain changes that allow them to replicate a little bit better or potentially bind to the cells in our respiratory tract a little bit better.”

But he added that the virus was yet to fully adapt to humans, saying it was fundamentally “still a bird virus.” Karlsson said the new mutations were unlikely to have occurred in the girl, but probably existed in a “cloud” of viruses with random genetic changes inside birds.

The strain in its current form is unlikely to cause a major outbreak. Widespread transmission would require a mutation that allows it to bind to a receptor found on cells in the nose.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said it is in a “posture of readiness” with several vaccine and drug candidates in the works.
Genetic testing revealed that the girl had caught the strain of H5N1, which is endemic to wild birds and poultry in Cambodia.

This differs from the type that has spread rapidly around the world and infected many birds and mammals, but Karlsson said this was no reason to downplay the threat.

He added: “This was zoonotic spillover [of a virus infecting a new species] and needs to be treated with the utmost concern. Calling on the world to keep monitoring the virus, he said: “Something may be happening here in Cambodia and something may be happening on the other side of the world in South America, but we don’t really know what could cause the problem tomorrow.”

H5N1 has a human mortality rate of around 50 percent. There have only been around 870 cases among people ever, globally.

The strain has devastated the world’s bird population over the past year. More than 15 million animals have been struck down and killed by the virus itself, while governments have collectively culled more than 200 million worldwide to curb the viruses’ spread, including 58 million in the US alone.

The pathogen has already jumped from birds to mammals, sparking fears that it is now one step close to spreading in humans — a hurdle that has so far stopped it from triggering a pandemic.

Health authorities in Cambodia say there is no evidence that the virus is spreading between people yet, suggesting the daughter and father caught the virus from the same source – likely an infected bird.

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