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

No, the WHO isn't trying to grab pandemic 'lockdown powers'

June 2, 2023

Claims that the WHO will enforce lockdowns in future pandemics are false. What’s really in the organization's pandemic treaty, and how does it aim to boost equitable access to vaccines and healthcare around the world?

WHO Director General at a press briefing
The new WHO pandemic treaty, currently at draft stage, will not give WHO director general powers to enforce lockdownsImage: Christopher Black/WHO/REUTERS

Claims that the World Health Organization (WHO) is attempting a power grab to force countries to lock down during future pandemics are circulating the internet, while national conservatives in the US and UK have made false claimswarning the organization is planning to threaten state sovereignty.

The claims have arisen after the publication of a draft of the WHO pandemic treaty, which seeks to shore up the world's defenses against new pathogens.

"We continue to see misinformation on social media and in mainstream media about the pandemic accord that countries are now negotiating. The claim that the accord will cede power to WHO is quite simply false. It's fake news," a WHO spokesperson told DW.

"Countries will decide what the pandemic accord says, and countries alone. And countries will implement the accord in line with their own national laws. No country will cede any sovereignty to WHO," the WHO spokesperson said.

The fake news has also made its way into traditional media outlets, with The Telegraph claiming that UK ministers fear the WHO pandemic treaty could impose lockdowns on the UK.

But the language in the treaty draft could not be any clearer: Powers to prevent and respond to pandemics will remain under national jurisdiction.

Its first consideration, listed on page 4, aims to "reaffirm the principle of sovereignty of State Parties in addressing public health matters."

What's in the WHO pandemic treaty?

COVID-19 was a wakeup call for how unprepared the world was to deal with pandemics at the global level.

The treaty aims to remedy this problem by to facilitating an "all of government and all of society approach" to future pandemics by strengthening national, regional and global health systems.

"We learned that we cannot start making rules during a crisis the magnitude of COVID. It was every nation for themselves. There is a global rational choice that says unless we get out of a pandemic together, we don't get out of it at all — that's why this treaty is so important," said Gian Luca Burci, a professor of international law at the Geneva Graduate Institute.

The treaty aims to promote international cooperation by improving alert systems, data-sharing and research, as well as the production and distribution of medical and public health countermeasures like vaccines, medicines and diagnostics.

"One way we're promoting international engagement is by calling on parties to the treaty to allocate a percentage of their GDP (how much is to be decided) for international cooperation and assistance on pandemic prevention, preparedness, response and health systems recovery, particularly for developing countries," an EU official told DW.

The WHO's role will be to facilitate these efforts as a "directing and coordinating authority", according to the treaty.

But the organization will not have any powers to override sovereign legal precedence to impose lockdowns or forced vaccination programs.

"One health" approach

A major part of the treaty incorporates policy that recognizes the health of ecosystems and the environment in pandemic prevention and response.

"One response is the focus on a 'one health' approach (considering the health of all living things, including animals) given that pandemics are likely to be caused by zoonotic pathogens," said the EU official.

Zoonotic pathogens are diseases caused by germs like viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi that spread between animals and people. Ebola, HIV, swine and avian flu are just some examples of zoonotic pathogens. And while scientists aren't certain how SARS-CoV-2 originated, experts believe there is a strong possibility the virus emerged at an animal marketin Wuhan, China.

The WHO pandemic treaty aims to implement actions to prevent pandemics from pathogens resistant to antimicrobial agents, as well as work to control zoonotic outbreaks in wildlife and domesticated animals.

"This treaty contains some of the important ingredients to reduce the risk of zoonotic spillover, namely by surveillance and helping national action to reduce its risk. It goes in the right direction, stronger than before," said Burci.

China WHO Corona-Ursprung Forschung
Contact with wild animals at a market in Wuhan may have spread coronavirus to humans. The WHO pandemic treaty aims to protect against zoonotic pathogens spreading.Image: Ng Han Guan/AP/dpa/picture alliance

International health equity

The start of the COVID-19 pandemic saw wealthier countries racing to purchase vast quantities of COVID-19 vaccines, leaving lower income countries stuck waiting for their share. 

"There was a failure of solidarity. This caused mistrust from many developing countries that now want ironclad guarantees so we won't repeat the experience of COVID," said Burci.

The treaty recognizes the failures of inequitable and ineffective global supply chains and logistics. 

"One idea is to use public funding as leverage to facilitate technology transfer, reserve certain quantities of vaccines ... and waive intellectual property rights,"  said Burci.

Burci explained the world saw a clear imbalance between the public and the private sector during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We've been dominated by the interests of pharmaceutical companies who rushed to produce vaccines because that's what the world wanted. The treaty aims to have a private prerogative, but also public power to protect the population and assert that there is a fundamental systemic inequity," said Burci.

But does the treaty go far enough?

The draft treaty has come under strong criticism for being toothless in its ability to provide equity measures for lower income countries

For example, a previous draft offered guidance that would designate a certain percentage of vaccines to the WHO for it to allocate equitably, but this has disappeared from the latest draft.

"Many people are very disappointed," said Burci. "Now, the draft treaty has language that waters down clear obligations to achieve equity."

However, the treaty isn't finalized yet. It is still at the drafting stage and won't be "submitted for consideration" until May 2024. If the treaty goes into effect, it will technically be legally binding, but the WHO doesn't have the power to penalize countries that disobey. The hope among experts like Burci is that stronger equity measures can be put in place by then.

"Compromises are painful. But the agreement is not the end of the story. It's the beginning of the story — afterwards comes implementation and development," said Burci.

Edited by: Clare Roth

DW-Mitarbeiter Fred Schwaller, PhD
Fred Schwaller Science writer fascinated by the brain and the mind, and how science influences society@schwallerfred