WHO nears consensus on future international pact to prevent pandemics - diplomats

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a ceremony to launch a multiyear partnership with Qatar on making FIFA Football World Cup 2022 and mega sporting events healthy and safe at the WHO headquarters, in Geneva, Switzerland, October 18, 2021. Fabrice Coffrini/ Pool via REUTERS

GENEVA, Nov 26 (Reuters) - The World Health Organisation (WHO) is inching closer to a consensus to negotiate an international agreement to prevent future pandemics, although Washington is so far reluctant to make the pact legally binding, Western diplomats say.

Health ministers from WHO's 194 member states open a three-day special assembly on Monday to try to clinch a deal with the aim of strengthening the agency's ability to address pandemics, after its handling of COVID-19 was criticised.

The United States has laid down a "red line" that it does not yet want to commit to a legally-binding treaty, but backs the idea of an agreement, and is supported by Brazil and India, diplomats say.

The European Union is pushing hard for a treaty that sets firm obligations, with backing from 70 countries, a European diplomat said.

"We are negotiating, there is a kind of growing consensus on the text but there are still discussions going on," he said. "Whatever we do, we need a continued commitment at the highest political level in the future and set up a system which allows for engagement and preparedness at the highest level in a much better structured way."

China has engaged in the talks and has not opposed a treaty, the European diplomat said.

More than 5.4 million people have died since the SARS-CoV-2 virus emerged in central China in December 2019. The WHO says that China has still not shared some of its early data that might help pinpoint the origin of the virus.

A global agreement is expected to cover issues including sharing of data and genome sequences of emerging viruses, but so far talks have not focused on its content.

Another Western diplomat said: "It looks highly likely that we will be agreeing to a new inter-governmental negotiating body...The outstanding point is the precise legal nature of it and under which article of WHO's Constitution it would fall."

"The Americans have been very constructive, they have gone to lengths during the negotiations to say they are not against a treaty. But at this stage they want to keep open the precise legal nature of the agreement that we reach."

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Gheybreyesus has endorsed the proposed treaty.

"Surely countries can agree on the need for a binding pact on the threat of pandemics," Tedros told reporters on Wednesday. "I’m encouraged that there is now a broad consensus for the need for such an instrument."

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay Editing by Peter Graff

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