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Gaps in international law impede pandemic research

May 14, 2020

The global COVID-19 pandemic reveals gaps in international law that can inhibit the sharing of scientific information, biological samples and genetic sequence data (GSD) crucial to the timely development of diagnostics, antiviral treatments and vaccines to address novel viral threats. However, according to a Policy Forum by Michelle Rourke and colleagues, there is currently no legal obligation or precedent for countries to share pathogen samples or data, despite its critical importance to global public health efforts. "The lack of a clear legal obligation to share pathogens or associated GSD during a health emergency represents a blind spot in international law and governances, impeding pandemic response and scientific progress," write the authors. Rourke et al. examined how information and data about the emergent SARS-CoV-2 virus during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to identify key chokepoints in international law impeding international scientific cooperation. The World Health Organization (WHO) International requires that all participating Member States notify the WHO of all public health information concerning any event that may constitute an international public health emergency, the definitions of what constitutes relevant information remains vague and potentially broadly interpreted. Specifically, WHO policy does not classify GSD nor biological samples as information that must be shared with the WHO. Complicating matters, international policy, such as the National Conventions on Biological Diversity and its Nagoya Protocol, place legally binding agreements allowing countries to claim sovereignty over genetic resources, which broadly include human viruses like the novel coronavirus. Such legal inconsistencies regarding a country's rights and obligations concerning the sharing of physical samples and genomic data ultimately impede pandemic preparedness and response. Rourke et al. argue the need for these gaps in international law to be addressed to enhance international scientific cooperation in the face of global crises. "The COVID-19 situation has demonstrated positive examples of rapid sharing, but it has also highlighted the reality that countries may not readily relinquish the sovereignty over pathogenic genetic resources and associated GSD," write the authors.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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