WHO member states, including China, are supposed to abide by the International Health Regulations (IHR), a comprehensive set of rules that set out countries’ obligations around disease outbreaks, such as sharing data and not imposing any unnecessary travel and trade restrictions.
Currently, however there is no sanction or enforcement mechanism for countries that do not meet these obligations and the WHO has no powers to enter a country and investigate.
“The IHRs have all the requirements but [the WHO] doesn’t have the political force to hold governments to it. There’s no enforcement mechanism”, said Clare Wenham, assistant professor of global health policy at the London School of Economics.
“This is where the crux of the tension lies… on paper we do have a pandemic treaty and we have a plan – the problem is governments don’t follow it”.
Diplomats are now working on the new treaty proposed by Mr Jonson and other leaders last week but the early signs are that it too will be toothless.
One senior WHO insider told the Telegraph that the pandemic treaty would be unlikely to include any new enforcement powers as it was unlikely member states including the UK and US would sign up to them.
“I don’t think, at least in the current environment, anybody would be talking about enforcement in relation to a pandemic treaty,” they said.
Instead of sticks, the best that could be hoped for would be that there were new “carrots” – such as funding – to encourage countries to comply.
The Telegraph contacted the 14 countries that called for a new investigation into the origins of the pandemic last week and asked if they would be willing to agree to legal sanctions for member states that refused to share data promptly or who failed to allow independent experts in to investigate.
Just three countries – the UK, Canada and Norway – responded to the Telegraph’s request and all ducked the key questions on enforcement. Instead they offered general statements.
“The UK already meets its obligations for sharing data under the international health regulations”, said the UK Department of Health.
“Norway believes it is important during any such outbreak of disease that all countries quickly open their borders to independent expert groups”, added Norway.
“Canada supports strong and active collaboration between the World Health Organization and its Member States”, said Canada’s public health agency.
The IHRs were introduced in 2005 after the Sars outbreak, when China – where the virus first emerged – took several months to alert the world to a new disease threat.
Initially it was proposed that countries that did not meet their obligations should face legal sanction but the US refused to sign up to any enforcement mechanism.
Earlier this year, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former president of Liberia and co-chair of a panel investigating WHO’s and countries’ response to the pandemic, said the world has kept WHO “underpowered and under-resourced”.
“The WHO has no powers to enforce anything or investigate anything of its own volition within a country. When it comes to a potential new disease threat, all WHO can do is ask and hope to be invited in,” she said. Carrots to encourage compliance could include funding from the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund – although whether this would make much difference to superpowers such as China or the United States is questionable.
The WHO insider said that a treaty should have more clout.
”Treaties have enormous value because countries, by and large, do not like falling foul of international law, it’s not good for their innational standing.”