Professor Jose Szapocznik and Dr. Jorge Saavedra are working with world leaders to promote a global agreement to help nations respond to outbreaks and prevent pandemics.
Four years ago, public health professor Jose Szapocznik saw the need for a global coalition that could help contain outbreaks and prevent larger pandemics.
Since then, Szapocznik’s goal has become much more forward-thinking.
Just two months after Szapocznik spoke to the AIDS Health Care Foundation about the issue, the current COVID-19 pandemic began. Soon after, Szapocznik and 20 other public health leaders published an article in The Lancet Public Health calling for a global framework and treaty that could help every nation prevent, prepare for, and respond to outbreaks and pandemics more systematically. Nations that do not comply could face appropriate and equitable sanctions, while poorer countries could be helped to comply with funding. These methods of mutual safety, Szapocznik says, will help countries know their peers are doing whatever is necessary to prevent outbreaks from becoming pandemics.
“If we’re going to prevent pandemics, we need a different global governance architecture that has these capabilities,” said Szapocznik, who is also the chair emeritus of the Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Public Health Sciences. “And to have an effective mechanism, that body needs to monitor what’s going on in different countries and be able to independently verify the data.”
To this end, Szapocznik, with support from the AIDS Health Care Foundation (AHF), worked with Dr. Jorge Saavedra, executive director of the AHF Global Public Health Institute at the university, and sought advice from university president Julio Frenk, a renowned global public health expert, to create the panel for a Global Public Health Convention in early 2021. Now Szapocznik serves as head of the secretariat, which includes Saavedra and three graduates from the University of Miami’s Masters in Public Health program.
The panel’s work received a major boost in December when, in response to its advocacy and that of many other international groups, the World Health Organization (WHO) said it would set up a panel to begin negotiating such an agreement or treaty. And this week, a WHO intergovernmental body met for the first time in Geneva, Switzerland, to draft a convention, or agreement, on how to prevent pandemics. Meanwhile, the United States is asking the WHO to tighten its international health regulations by the end of May.
Szapocznik is working with a growing number of global public health experts to make the agreement a reality. With many of the same goals as the Lancet article, the 10-strong panel now meets monthly to advocate for a global deal. It includes a range of world health experts, such as its Chair, Barbara M. Stocking, former Chief Executive of OxFam Great Britain, recent past President of Murray Edwards College at Cambridge University and Chair of the Ebola Independent Panel appointed by the WHO in 2015; Laura Chinchilla, former President of Costa Rica and current Vice President of the World Leadership Alliance-Club de Madrid; Jane Halton, former Secretary of the Treasury and Health Departments in Australia and former President of the World Health Assembly, which governs WHO; John Dramani Mahama, former President of Ghana; and Professor Maha El Rabbat, the first Egyptian Minister of Health and Population and currently Executive Director of the Middle East and North Africa Health Policy Forum.
With the three-year anniversary of the pandemic approaching, the novel coronavirus is still spreading around the world, spawning variants in its wake. Szapocznik cites a patchwork of measures to contain the virus and the different access to vaccines worldwide as problems. These varied responses have now caused nearly six million deaths that could have been prevented, he pointed out; In addition, the economies of many nations have been damaged, he added. A global agreement could help the world contain outbreaks — through transparency, coordination, global monitoring of data, sharing of knowledge about how vaccines are made, and accountability, Szapocznik suggested.
“Justice is needed not only in the distribution of common goods like vaccines and medicines, but also in the funding needed to prepare poor countries to respond effectively in the event of an outbreak,” the public health professor said. “No single country can prevent the effects of a pandemic because viruses know no borders.”
Another impetus for the treaty: while WHO is an important resource for providing scientific guidance and helping countries prepare for pandemic prevention, it cannot both support and hold nations accountable for their actions, closed Szapocznik.
However, no contract or agreement will come about without tough negotiations. While nations like Chile and many in Europe wholeheartedly support the idea, and the United States warms to it, others – like Brazil and China – have opposed such a move.
“Everyone is now focused on helping themselves, but no country will be able to fully recover until we drastically reduce transmission worldwide to prevent new, more harmful variants from emerging,” Szapocznik said. “Some countries are unwilling to look at the big picture, but we must all work together if we are to prevent the next pandemic.”