Pandemic highlights gaps in international law over sharing information during outbreaks

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted shortfalls in international law over the sharing of virus samples and scientific data, which must be addressed to better tackle future disease outbreaks according to a Keele legal health expert.

Currently there is no specific legal obligation for researchers to share viral samples or genetic sequence data with other countries or the World Health Organisation (WHO). During the Covid-19 pandemic some researchers have shared such resources, but only in the spirit of scientific cooperation. However, a new paper published in Science, co-authored by Lecturer in Global Health Law Dr Mark Eccleston-Turner, has warned that the spirit of scientific cooperation is not enough to support this vital scientific function.

Dr Eccleston-Turner said that the lack of a legal obligation to share such viruses and information represents a ‘blind spot’ in international law, which presents a risk of research progress and vaccine development being slowed when responding to future pandemics.

This, coupled with the fact that different countries’ legal systems often conflict with one another, can lead to significant confusion about countries’ rights and obligations when it comes to sharing information about diseases, which can hamper international efforts to combat a disease outbreak.

Dr Eccleston-Turner and his co-authors argue the case for such an agreement to be written into international law, saying that implementing a formal agreement between nations will be crucial for tackling this and future pandemics.

Without a legally binding agreement in place, they add, it cannot be guaranteed that all countries will stick to best scientific practice which could have a negative impact on our ability to deal with this current pandemic, as well as future outbreaks of disease.

Dr Eccleston-Turner, from Keele’s School of Law said: “At present we rely upon goodwill and best practice from researchers and governments to enable the sharing of viruses and genetic sequence data during a pandemic.

“Rather than mandating the sharing of these vital tools during a pandemic, the international legal system encourages countries around the world to look at viruses – even those with human pandemic potential – as their sovereign resources, which can be bargained and bartered away in a transactional model, in exchange for future health goods.

“We need to move away from this model to one where viruses, and the health goods (such as vaccines) which are developed using those viruses are seen as public goods, which everyone in the world has equal claim and access to.”