This oped was originally published on International Business Times on 11 April 2021.
Imagine if China had refused to share Covid-19’s genetic sequences with other countries. Vaccine development would have been delayed indefinitely. Monitoring the virus would have been next to impossible.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Chinese scientists shared the full SARS-CoV-2 sequence on Jan. 10, 2020, thus kickstarting the development of multiple vaccines created in record time. But such a nightmarish alternative scenario is not farfetched.
Preventing nations from abusing the Nagoya Protocol will require another binding international agreement — one that specifically obliges countries to share pathogens in a timely manner, which would undoubtedly benefit society as a whole.
Thankfully, the member states of the World Health Organization have a chance to enact such reforms through the International Health Regulations, a legally binding international instrument currently under revision, or through the recently proposed international treaty on pandemics.
Consider the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), a coronavirus that emerged in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Shortly after the virus’ appearance, Mohammed Ali Zaki, an Egyptian microbiologist based in Saudi Arabia, began investigating the illness. He sent a sample of the virus to a Dutch lab.
Instead of supporting this effort to better understand the virus, however, the Saudi government tried to block the sharing of the virus by appealing to its rights under the Convention on Biological Diversity. And the government’s refusal to share samples of the virus hampered the effort to control the outbreak. To this day, no vaccine against MERS exists.
As currently written, the Nagoya Protocol makes it highly likely that such an episode will occur again.
Obliging countries to immediately share pathogens with pandemic potential would exempt pathogens from national legislation around Nagoya and ensure international cooperation during future pandemics. It would also help the international community make sure that no country is ever rewarded for allowing a deadly disease to spread around the world unchecked.