German Health Minister Jens Spahn called for sanctions Wednesday against countries that hide information about future outbreaks.
Citing the World Trade Organization’s power to sanction countries for noncompliance, Spahn said “there must be something that follows” if countries fail to live up to commitments under a new pandemic treaty that the World Health Assembly will take up in November.
The proposal for sanctions from a major EU country — a not-so-subtle dig at China — marks a major shift in tone as Western governments accuse Beijing of preventing a full investigation into how the novel coronavirus emerged.
World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also urged countries to consider the idea as they take up the treaty, a legally binding tool to better prevent, detect and respond to future pandemics. The treaty should “have all the incentives, or the carrots” to encourage transparency, Tedros said, appearing at a press conference with Spahn in Berlin. “But maybe exploring the sanctions may be important,” he added.
The idea of giving the WHO enforcement authority has traditionally been a non-starter. While the EU is a champion of the pandemic treaty, its proposal has so far emphasized carrots, not sticks.
Spahn and Tedros made their comments at the inauguration of a new virus-monitoring center in Berlin, dubbed the WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence. Spahn used the occasion to call on countries to put “sufficient financial resources” behind pandemic monitoring.
The health minister, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right party, acknowledged that such disclosure would be awkward for any country. But he called on China “to finally become fully cooperative, and to make the explanation of the origin of the coronavirus transparent to the international community.”
“I have asked myself several times, if it had started in Germany or a European country, or the U.S., how would we have cooperated with the WHO? Because of course there are so many dimensions to it: politics, prestige, science,” Spahn said. The debate over sanctions, he added, is “not an easy debate, but I think it is a necessary debate.”
Merkel was also in attendance to formally inaugurate the new center, which was set up as part of Germany’s growing role as a global health leader. Last year, Berlin was the WHO’s top donor and spearheaded talks over reforming the Geneva-based U.N. agency.
An initial $100 million investment by the German government is funding the hub, which will be led by Chikwe Ihekweazu, currently director general of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control.
For now, the hub will operate out of the Charité medical and research facility, but will eventually relocate to a permanent facility in the capital’s Kreuzberg district. It will be responsible for detecting and monitoring virus events that have the potential to turn into pandemics.
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