The World Health Organization has been working to draft the first-ever global pandemic agreement for years, but the global entity fell short of finalizing a draft by last Friday as its leaders had hoped.

The WHO International Negotiating Body (INB) has revised many versions of the health agreement to create a global plan of action for any designated future health emergency. In March 2021, one year into the COVID-19 panic, the WHO called for global collaboration in preparing, preventing, and responding to pandemics. By December 2021, WHO members launched a global process to draft and negotiate a legally binding agreement.

While the Biden administration has expressed support for the global initiative, the effort has faced intense backlash since it was first discussed, most recently from every Republican in the US Senate. North Carolina Senators Thom Tillis and Ted Budd joined 49 other senators in sending a letter to President Biden earlier this month in opposition to the international health agreement. They wrote that such negotiations were ‘unacceptable’ because they would strengthen the WHO’s authority over member states during emergencies and infringe on Americans’ constitutional rights.  

“Some of the over 300 proposals for amendments made by member states would substantially increase the WHO’s health emergency powers and constitute intolerable infringements upon U.S. sovereignty,” the letter reads. 

It’s not clear how the agreement will be submitted for approval, but, if it’s an official treaty as once proposed, the US Constitution calls for authorization from the Senate. Still, the president has the option of acceding to a treaty/agreement through executive action alone, without the advice and consent of the Senate, KFF described in a recent analysis.

The senators noted the failure of the WHO’s pandemic response was “as total as it was predictable and did lasting harm to our country,” and they “are deeply concerned that [the Biden] administration continues to support these initiatives and strongly urge [President Biden] to change course.”

The Republican senators warn in the letter that the agreement is a treaty that will require two-thirds of the Senate to consent under Article II Section 2 of the Constitution.

“In light of the high stakes for our country and our constitutional duty, we call upon you to (1) withdraw your administration’s support for the current IHR amendments and pandemic treaty negotiations, (2) shift your administration’s focus to comprehensive WHO reforms that address its persistent failures without expanding its authority, and (3) should you ignore these calls, submit any pandemic related agreement to the Senate for its advice and consent.”

The Biden administration is expected to commit the US to the international agreements during the World Health Assembly’s annual meeting, which will begin on May 27 with the theme, “All for Health, Health for All.” While the INB didn’t meet its anticipated Friday deadline, officials will still work to submit their draft for consideration at the World Health Assembly meeting later this month.

“We are witnessing history play out before our eyes during this process, with the coming together of all countries to decide a binding pact to protect all citizens of the world,” said INB Bureau Co-Chair Dr Precious Matsoso. “This is not a simple exercise. This is the first ever process to develop a proposed agreement on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. Getting this done means getting it right, and the INB Bureau is committed to help finalize a meaningful, lasting agreement.”

INB Bureau Co-chair  Roland Driece warned that it’s not a matter of if a pandemic will happen again but rather when, adding that this is a “historic opportunity to make the world safer from the next pandemic threat.”

The latest draft covers equity through pandemic prevention, public health surveillance, regulatory strengthening, the transfer of technologies, and access and benefit sharing with foreign nations. The United Kingdom reportedly won’t sign the document as written because it would force the nation to give away one-fifth of its vaccine supplies to poorer countries during health emergencies.

The draft once permitted the WHO Director-General to declare a pandemic, but after facing backlash, the drafts explicitly acknowledges national sovereignty.

“Nothing in the WHO Pandemic Agreement shall be interpreted as providing the WHO Secretariat, including the WHO Director-General, any authority to direct, order, alter or otherwise prescribe the national and/or domestic laws, as appropriate, or policies of any Party, or to mandate or otherwise impose any requirements that Parties take specific actions, such as ban or accept travellers, impose vaccination mandates or therapeutic or diagnostic measures or implement lockdowns,” the April version reads.