As concern grows over the omicron variant, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday the panicked reactions by world leaders showed the urgent need for a global accord on pandemics.
"The emergence of the highly mutated omicron variant underlines just how perilous and precarious our situation is," said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the start of a three-day World Health Assembly meeting.
He said scientists around the world are "urgently" working to determine whether the omicron variant, first identified in South Africa, is more infectious or whether vaccines are effective against it.
The UN health agency chief, however, emphasized that the 194-member World Health Assembly needs to ensure that the groundwork is laid for an accord that can prevent future pandemics.
"We shouldn't need another wake-up call," Tedros said.
Why did the WHO label omicron as 'high risk'?
Earlier on Monday, the WHO released a statement with the latest assessment of the omicron variant — designating it as a bringing a "very high" risk of global infection surges.
While it remains to be seen whether the variant increases the risk of severe disease or death — the multiple mutations in the past have led to a higher risk of recurring infections in patients who have already recovered from COVID.
"Depending on these characteristics, there could be future surges of COVID-19, which could have severe consequences, depending on a number of factors including where surges may take place," the WHO said in a statement.
How much support is there for a pandemic accord?
Leaders from Germany and the European Union threw their support behind a global pandemic pact, calling for more stable financing for the WHO.
"I would like us member states to increase our contributions significantly — this means up to 50%," said acting Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The outgoing German leader also backed efforts to make a pandemic prevention accord legally binding — which is currently not on the table in the draft agreement.
Merkel is due to hold video calls with German state governors on Tuesday to discuss the sharp increase in coronavirus cases around the country.
Health ministers from the G7 group said "there was strong support to set up an international pathogen surveillance network within the framework of the World Health Organization."
In a joint statement after a virtual meeting, they praised "the exemplary work of South Africa in both detecting the variant and alerting others to it."
The United States has been hesitant to agree to sign on to a legally binding treaty, but reached a compromise with other member states to kick start the process for a global "accord."
What is in the draft?
The draft, which is expected to be adopted by the end of the talks on Wednesday, sets out the long-term steps.
Countries have tentatively agreed to establish an intergovernmental body that will draft and negotiate an accord. The accord itself will focus on three areas: pandemic prevention, preparedness and pandemic response.
A treaty, accord, or another type of agreement won't likely be ready for years. The deadline is currently set at 2024.
rs/wmr (dpa, AFP)