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US optimistic a deal to lessen threats of future pandemics is in sight 

Geneva — Despite the failure of negotiators to reach a pandemic accord ahead of this week’s World Health Assembly, a senior U.S. official remains optimistic that an agreement to lessen the threats of global killer disease outbreaks is in sight.

“We think the elements of a good deal are already on the table and that is why we feel optimistic because those are pretty good deals. It is just a matter now of fine-tuning it to make sure everybody says we are ready to sign on the dotted line,” Xavier Becerra, U.S. secretary of health and human services, told journalists at a briefing in Geneva Wednesday.

While disappointing, Becerra indicated that it was not surprising that an accord was not reached after two-and-a-half years of negotiations.

“Negotiations go on forever,” he said. “I think we have to put this in perspective. You do not build a nation overnight. You do not build an Empire State Building overnight. It takes a long time. Name me a major international achievement that came overnight.

“I think there is clear consensus that we cannot let the status quo be upon us if another pandemic comes,” he said.

His view reflects that of World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who, in his opening remarks at the World Health Assembly on Monday, assured delegates that the negotiations were on track and were not a failure.

“Of course, we all wish that we had been able to reach a consensus on the agreement in time for this health assembly and cross the finish line,” he said. “But I remain confident that you still will—because where there is a will, there is a way.”

WHO says 7,010,681 people have died from the COVID-19 outbreak as of April 13 and that a total of 704,753,890 cases have been confirmed in 229 countries and territories.

Becerra noted that threats against global health have an outsized influence on broader global political and economic interests.

“There is no stability without health. There is no security without health. Our nations cannot be strong unless they are healthy.

“Getting out of COVID is our main health priority,” Becerra said, noting that U.S. President Joe Biden was committed to achieving a pandemic treaty.

“When the president came in, we were experiencing two or three 9/11s every day in America in terms of loss of life. That is where we started. Today, we are walking around without masks. We are treating COVID the way we treat the flu,” he said, indicating that now is not the time to become complacent.

“I think we realize that another pandemic could be upon us. I mean, we are dealing with avian flu in the U.S. right now. We do not know how long it is going to be before we get another type of COVID kind of tragedy. We do not want to wait,” he said.

Sticking points to a pandemic treaty include disagreements over sharing information about pathogens that cause pandemics, a formula for global sharing of vaccines and medicine during international health emergencies, and financing to set up surveillance systems.

The WHO says that member states have agreed to continue to work during the World Health Assembly “to develop the world’s first pandemic accord” to prevent a repeat of the “global health, economic and social impacts” of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We really have an incredible opportunity this week,” Loyce Pace, assistant secretary for global affairs at HHS, said.

“We have spent so long trying to come together and finding compromise and consensus. I think we talk about what is left to do, but I do not know if we talk enough about what has been done toward reaching an agreement.”

“So, whatever happens this week, we need some deliverable, if only to keep this momentum on towards any other work that should continue. We shouldn’t be leaving Geneva and go home without an accord, not after all that has been done,” Pace said.

Secretary Becerra agrees, saying that he does not think there are substantive disagreements about the essential elements of a pandemic treaty.

“It is more how they are packaged, how they are defined. People generally agree with what we have to do in order to be ready to take on any pandemic that may come across our path,” Becerra said.

“I am the son of immigrants. Optimism is in my DNA and so, I believe we are going to get this done because it would be tragic, especially given how far we have come and not get it done.

“We have to be ready,” he said. “Who knows what is coming around the corner. Something is going to broadside us. We just have to be ready.”