1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Fact check: Conspiracy theories about the 'pandemic treaty'

June 25, 2023

Can the WHO interfere in state affairs? As the World Health Organization negotiates a new treaty for pandemic preparedness, false claims about its provisions are being shared online.

A syringe and vaccine dose in front of the WHO logo
The WHO pandemic preparedness treaty is in the early stages of being negotiated, but online, tempers are already flaring highImage: Artur Widak/NurPhoto/picture alliance

In the event of another pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) is preparing an international accord that will help ensure the fairer distribution of health resources across rich and poor countries, and improve data sharing between nations. Earlier in June, an intergovernmental negotiating body of the WHO (INB) met to discuss proposals for an agreement on pandemic preparedness. Its goal is to present a final draft at the 77th World Health Assembly in May 2024.

Much remains to be settled, but observers and political representatives alike are already making false claims about the accord.

So far this year, all that's been published is a first draft — referred to as "zero draft" — in February for the WHO to discuss. Since then, misleading comments and accusatory posts with false claims have been flooding social media. DW reviewed some of them.

Can the World Health Organization interfere in states' sovereignty?

Claim: Many on Twitter fear the WHO aims to interfere in states' sovereignty.

DW fact check: False 

The agreement on pandemic preparedness is negotiated between the 194 member states of the World Health Organization, but the WHO itself cannot determine the content of the arrangements. The draft text is careful to stress the sovereignty of nations, and Germany's Federal Health Ministry told DW that "the final agreed-upon regulations are ratified by sovereign nations, in order to acquire national legal effect."

Pedro Villarreal is an expert in international law who specializes in global health and the role of the WHO at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law. He told DW that "in the current draft of the pandemic preparedness treaty or agreement, there is a principle highlighting that states retain sovereignty in pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response."

Villareal, also a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), added that the WHO toolkit to intervene in national affairs is strongly limited. Rather, the WHO is an international organization in charge of coordinating responses to the outbreak of infectious diseases.

For example, it coordinates research on treatment methods and vaccinations, and exchanges information with member states. It can make recommendations and criticize states that do not adhere to measures, but it cannot impose further measures such as sanctions.

Can the WHO deploy troops?

Claim: If needed, the WHO would deploy troops to enforce the regulations of the pandemic preparedness agreement. That's what one user posted on Twitter, claiming that national armed forces would be entrusted with implementing the pandemic preparedness treaty. Should they refuse orders, the user insisted the UN would deploy its own troops, for example to force people into receiving a vaccination. By the time this fact check was published, this tweet had been retweeted over 700 times. 

DW fact check: False

This, too, would be an encroachment on states' sovereignty which is not provided for in the WHO pandemic treaty. Besides, the United Nations does not have standing troops, and only provides peacekeeping missions in support of member states if the warring parties consent. In these cases, the UN Security Council can issue and oversee mandates for peacekeeping measures. However, for each individual mission, the Security Council must request members states to provide national troop contingents.

In order to pass a resolution, the Security Council needs approval from nine of its 15 sitting members, including all five of its permanent members France, the United Kingdom, Russia, China and United States. The WHO has no influence on this decision: "As a health organization, the WHO is under no circumstances authorized to deploy soldiers to a country," the WHO explained in a written response.

Villareal explained that the WHO does not have much power to take action against any breach of contract. "If an agreement is violated, it is possible to initiate a dispute settlement procedure. But that would take place between states and not at the behest of the WHO," he said, adding that "the WHO cannot impose sanctions on its own, and that is not up for debate."

Can the WHO force people to receive a vaccination?

Claim: Many social media users have maintained that the WHO wants to force people to get vaccinated. Some of these claims were made last year, but are still being widely shared.

DW fact check: False

The draft of the WHO treaty on pandemic preparedness makes no mention of any possible vaccine mandate. Instead, it's focused on a more just distribution of vaccines and medicines between poorer and richer countries. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this was a decisive bottleneck: While wealthier nations were able to acquire vaccines much more quickly, less wealthy nations, predominantly in the Global South, were left empty-handed.

Instead, negotiations on the agreement are about distribution. "The more drafts of this pandemic treaty we see, the more we notice states reducing or weakening their pledges and commitments" on distribution, Villareal said. This would have a negative impact on many countries.

And what is the WHO's stance on vaccine mandates? During the COVID-19 pandemic, the WHO warned against them, recommending this should only be considered when all other options had been exhausted. Mandatory vaccinations were hotly debated in several countries in the throes of the pandemic. Germany, for example, issued a so-called facility-related vaccination requirement. A vaccination requirement in Germany is only permitted if it is proportionate and reasonable.

Villareal doesn't believe that a global vaccination requirement would be legally viable. When speaking with DW, he also pointed to the problem of vaccine distribution. "Even if it were taken into consideration, the problem would be that we could not dictate a mandate that is not currently feasible because vaccinations are not globally available," he said.

Can the WHO monitor our movements?

Claim: Users on Twitter and Telegram claimed the WHO wanted to use digital passports to track our every move. One tweet on the matter was retweeted over 2,000 times.

DW fact check: False

The draft makes no mention of the organization planning to issue digital passports to monitor holders' movements. The WHO states that it is "neither involved in the national digital certification of personal health, nor in the collection of personal data." It is up to states to decided which data to collect.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU digital COVID certificate, for example, made it possible for people to prove they had been vaccinated. This made it easier to travel to different countries. The digital certificate recorded data on the vaccine used, the number of vaccine charges administered and the disease the vaccine was intended to combat. No other personal data was saved for the long term at one location.

Tobias Rothmund, professor for the psychology of communication and media use at the University of Jena in Germany, pointed out that skepticism toward science, transnational organizations and governments was a frequent phenomenon. "Insecurity plays a role by making it hard for people to discern between true and false claims," he explained, adding that the spread of fake news was often a function of political attitudes and strategic motivations.

And this doesn't just affect the WHO. A 2022 report by the Pew Research Center showed that in the US, popular trust in science had declined sharply. As a result, false information on health-related topics kept circulating.

Villareal remains skeptical as to whether the WHO will produce a final agreement by 2024, pointing out that too many questions remain unanswered.

This article was translated from German.

Silja Thoms stands and smiles as she looks into the camera.
Silja Thoms Senior Editor and Reporter