“Narrow national interest should not come in the way” of fighting against the next big public health threat, says World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The WHO chief was talking at a panel discussing how healthcare systems should prepare for “Disease X”, at the ongoing World Economic Forum (WEF) being held in Davos.

Disease X refers to the next international epidemic caused by an unknown pathogen. The term was created by the WHO in 2018 to help facilitate sufficient planning and preparedness to sustain public health in the face of the next big viral threat.

Disease X is on the WHO’s priority disease list alongside diseases such as Zika, Covid-19, Ebola virus disease and Marburg virus disease. The priority list is meant to direct global investment and intensify research and development (R&D) in those areas.

“We have to convert all the lessons we have learned into this [next] pandemic and prepare the world for the future because this is a common global interest,” Ghebreyesus said.

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Ghebreyesus’ main message was that of addressing equity and ensuring collaboration to fight “a common enemy.” Covid-19 vaccine inequity is difficult to ignore – during the first seven months of the Covid-19 vaccination campaign, more than 80% of the doses were concentrated in high and upper-middle income countries.

The WHO chief reiterated the importance of The Pandemic Treaty – an international agreement that would bring countries together to fight Disease X and any other future pandemics. “Many high-income countries were hoarding vaccines [during the Covid-19 pandemic] and low-income countries were not getting vaccines. Access was a problem.”

The treaty is known also as The Pandemic Agreement or Accords and countries have until May 2024 to join.

“I hope [The Pandemic Agreement] will be delivered by that time. If this generation cannot do it, who have first-hand experience, I don’t think the next generation will.”

It will not be an easy road to securing a substantial amount of WHO member country signatures. Officials have been negotiating  the terms for over a year. There is a clear divide in the US, for example, where the opposition Republican party has been openly against the agreement – saying the WHO would acquire additional power.  The outcome of the upcoming presidential election in 2024 will likely have implications for the US stance on the treaty.

The international non-profit Human Rights Watch has also called on the member states to push for commitments to protect core human rights in the agreement.

Pharma companies have been wary of the treaty and its stance on allowing intellectual property waivers when applicable. The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) said in a statement that this approach to inducing equity would conversely lead to innovation pipelines being stalled.

Ghebreyesus has previously called out critics of the pandemic accords and highlighted the role of “vested interests” in driving this disapproval.

The WHO has already taken several steps to build a framework in place to tackle the next unknown pathogen. In 2022, the organisation helped set up The Pandemic Fund with the World Bank to enhance preparedness in low- and middle-income countries. In a further bid to address health inequity seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, an mRNA technology transfer hub has been set up in South Africa to increase local production. Virus surveillance and early warning systems are also being advanced.

Research indicates that Covid-19 would have caused 40 million more deaths in the absence of preventative measures.

“The key is the capacity we build in each and every country. We’re as strong as the weakest link,” Dr Tedros added.

AstraZeneca’s chairman Michel Demaré, Philips’ CEO Roy Jakobs, Apollo Hospitals’ vice chairperson Preetha Reddy, and Brazil’s health minister Nisia Trindade Lima were also on the panel.