We welcome the decision of the World Health Assembly to develop an international agreement on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response under the Constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO).

New health threats can develop at any time into emergencies and no country, rich or poor, is exempt. We believe all countries have an ethical obligation, founded in solidarity, to prepare themselves for such eventualities and to support others in doing so. Up to now, effective pandemic preparedness has been hampered by a lack of continued political will at all levels.

We hope the new convention will be an important step towards a truly global approach to future pandemics, although it should not be a distraction from the very serious challenges we face in the global response to COVID-19 today.

Ethical preparedness

As member states enter the process of drawing up the new convention, we will be emphasising the importance of ethical preparedness. Ethical preparedness is the state of being ready as a society to identify, understand and evaluate the ethical issues that arise from any relevant law or policy, being then also ready to do what is ethically justified as well as necessary.

Professor David Archard, Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, said

“Ethical preparedness has particular importance in a public health emergency such as the pandemic, where it is crucial that countries know in advance that they will be able to make informed, robust and considered critical ethical decisions when they need to, in ways that will engender public trust.”

We have previously raised concerns about the absence of ethical consideration from the UK’s approach to this pandemic. We and others working in the field of ethics need to continue to help decision makers to articulate the values that are guiding policy decisions, understand the importance of engaging widely, be transparent in their working, and think ahead to future public health emergencies.

To this end, earlier this year, we helped establish the UK Pandemic Ethics Accelerator. The Accelerator is harnessing ethics expertise to support public debate and provide rapid evidence and critical analysis to decision-makers across science, medicine, government and public health. Read the Accelerator’s latest publications.

The importance of carrying out research ethically in emergencies

We will also continue to highlight the crucial role of research and rigorous evidence to support effective emergency responses. Our inquiry on research in global health emergencies identified ways in which research could be conducted ethically even in these most difficult and distressing circumstances.

In January 2020, we published a Call for Action to research funders, governments, and others involved in health research systems for a more ethical and collaborative approach to conducting research during emergencies. It highlights key recommendations and responsibilities including the need for:

  • investment in community engagement mechanisms to ensure that the voices of those directly affected by emergencies are heard in the development and conduct of research
  • carefully planned partnerships between researchers and those responsible for emergency response to ensure that research is not taking place in the absence of basic health services
  • equitable collaborations between research organisations, particularly between external research institutions and their local partners in high- and low-income settings
  • a focus on the continuing vital importance of emergency planning and preparedness.

The Call for Action is supported by leading research institutions, funders and humanitarian organisations in Europe, Africa, and Latin and North America, including Wellcome, the African Academy of Sciences, Fiocruz and the International Rescue Committee.