The COVID-19 pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has resulted in massive loss of life and economic damage globally. While the origins of the virus are still being investigated, the rapid spread was enabled by a highly interconnected world where pathogens can traverse international borders with ease. This paper examines the issue of international responsibility for spreading viruses, using the coronavirus pandemic as a case study. It explores the obligations that states have under international law to prevent cross-border spread of diseases, and argues for stronger global governance mechanisms to improve pandemic preparedness and response. After providing background on the coronavirus pandemic, it analyzes the International Health Regulations (2005) and how COVID-19 exposed gaps in the framework. Potential reforms to strengthen the international legal regime are proposed, emphasizing the need for enhanced cooperation, transparency, and national-level capacities. The paper concludes by reflecting on the implications of the coronavirus experience for conceptualizing national interests regarding global public health, underscoring the value of solidarity and collective action.
In December 2019, several patients in Wuhan, China were found to have pneumonia from an unknown cause. By January 2020, scientists had identified the cause as a novel coronavirus, later named SARS-CoV-2. In the following months, the virus spread rapidly across the world, triggering an unprecedented public health and economic crisis. As of October 2022, over 620 million confirmed cases and over 6.5 million deaths have been reported globally (1). The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be one of the deadliest disease outbreaks in over a century. Beyond the staggering loss of lives, the societal and economic impacts have also been severe. At the pandemic’s peak, much of the world went into lockdown, leading to supply chain disruptions, business closures, and massive unemployment.
The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the ability of pathogens to traverse country borders and wreak havoc globally in today’s interconnected world. While zoonotic spillover likely caused the initial jump of the virus from animals to humans, human mobility enabled the wide geographic spread that followed (2). International travel, trade, and migration patterns facilitated the virus’s circulation worldwide. This raises important questions about state obligations and shared responsibility to prevent infectious disease transmission across national borders. When lapses and delays by particular countries can put populations everywhere at risk, how should accountability be conceptualized? What governance mechanisms are required to promote collective action against global health threats?
This paper examines international responsibility for spreading viruses, using the case of the COVID-19 pandemic. It first provides background on the coronavirus and timeline of major developments in the outbreak. Next, it analyzes the International Health Regulations (2005), the key legal framework governing pandemic response, and how the coronavirus experience exposed weaknesses in the regime. Potential reforms are then proposed to bolster global capacity to manage infectious disease events. Finally, it reflects on how conceptions of national interest must adjust in light of growing interdependence in global health. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for cooperation and provided lessons for improving international law and governance to prevent and contain outbreaks that can quickly become global crises.
Background on the Coronavirus Pandemic
On December 31, 2019, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reported 27 cases of viral pneumonia of unknown etiology (3). Most patients had links to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, suggesting zoonotic origin from animals. By January 7, 2020, Chinese scientists had isolated a novel coronavirus as the causative agent. The virus was initially designated 2019-nCoV and later named SARS-CoV-2 due to similarity to the SARS virus that caused an outbreak in 2003. The first death from the new coronavirus was reported on January 11 in China.
Despite Wuhan implementing control measures including market closures and public transport restrictions, COVID-19 cases rose rapidly throughout January, spreading to other Chinese cities as millions traveled for Lunar New Year festivities. The outbreak was declared a public health emergency in China on January 20. By this time, cases had been detected in Japan, South Korea, and Thailand, signifying that the virus was already spreading globally. On January 30, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), its highest level of alarm. However, at this stage, WHO did not recommend international trade or travel restrictions.
In February, the number of new cases escalated rapidly in countries like Italy, Iran, and South Korea. By March 11, over 118,000 cases had been recorded globally across 114 countries, and WHO characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic. Many countries imposed strict lockdowns and travel bans in efforts to contain outbreaks nationally. The United States declared a national emergency on March 13. Europe became the epicenter of the pandemic in March, with Italy’s death toll surpassing China’s. By April, the U.S. led in both confirmed cases and deaths. The economic fallout was severe, with stock markets plunging, businesses suspending operations, and unemployment spiking.
The coronavirus continued spreading through the spring and summer of 2020 in multiple waves around the world. While some countries in Asia and Europe managed to suppress transmission for a time through public health interventions, the overall global trajectory remained highly concerning. By late 2020, improved testing capacity revealed the full scale of infections. In December 2020, the first vaccines were approved for emergency use, bringing hopes for eventual containment of the pandemic. However, vaccine access and roll-out were highly unequal between wealthy and lower-income countries through 2021. Continued viral evolution also presented challenges, with new variants like Delta and Omicron showing ability to evade immunity.
By early 2022, almost all countries had experienced COVID-19 outbreaks. While vaccines prevented many severe cases, transmission continued due to remaining pockets of vulnerability and uneven vaccine coverage. Efforts shifted towards finding sustainable solutions to co-exist with the virus while limiting societal disruptions. However, the enormous toll of the pandemic has prompted reflection on what improvements are needed to prevent or mitigate future global outbreaks. The rapid international spread of COVID-19 revealed glaring gaps in preparedness.
The International Health Regulations
The International Health Regulations (2005) or IHR are the key framework governing global health emergency response. The regulations are a legally binding instrument adopted by 196 countries under the authority of WHO. The purpose is to prevent and respond to the international spread of diseases while avoiding unnecessary interference with international travel and trade (4). Key provisions include obligations for countries to develop core health system capacities, report potential public health emergencies to WHO, and uphold protections for human rights and dignity. WHO coordinates international actions during health crises and can issue temporary recommendations.
The IHR evolved from earlier versions of the regulations that required countries to report outbreaks of cholera, plague, and yellow fever. Following SARS and other emerging disease threats, the regulations were revised in 2005 to encompass “all public health risks whatever their origin or source” (5). This was an important expansion in scope, reflecting changing risk perceptions. The regulations aim to balance sovereign rights, obligations to cooperate, and the need for collective action on shared health threats. However, critics have argued that the nonbinding nature of WHO recommendations and lack of enforcement mechanisms are weaknesses. The COVID-19 experience tested the limits of the framework.
Gaps Revealed by the COVID-19 Pandemic
While the IHR established helpful norms and aspirations, COVID-19 revealed fundamental shortcomings in actual global capacity to manage pandemics. Deficiencies were exposed in transparency, coordination, national capacities, and compliance.
One major critique was the lack of transparency from China in the initial stages of the outbreak. Despite detecting clusters of pneumonia of unknown origin in December 2019, Chinese authorities did not report the problem to WHO until January 3, 2020 (6). Precious time was lost to implement containment measures. China also initially provided WHO with minimal information about the number of cases and potential for transmission between humans. Although WHO mobilized experts to investigate in mid-January, limitations delayed understanding of the true scale and nature of the threat.
Other countries contributed to opacity according to their domestic political interests. For example, Tanzania and Nicaragua denied having any COVID-19 cases at all, underreporting to downplay the pandemic’s impact (7). Political pressure on U.S. health agencies like the CDC led to communication controversies and reduced trust domestically and abroad (8). State capacities for surveillance, data collection, and willingness to rapidly share information were inconsistent.
Poor international coordination was another weakness. Travel restrictions were implemented in an uncoordinated manner between countries. Screening approaches differed at ports of entry. Supply chains for medical equipment and therapeutics suffered from a lack of transparency and cooperation. Bidding wars erupted between countries over scarce resources. Global allocation of vaccines reproduced historical inequities in access to medicines between the global north and south. All of this undermined an effective collective response when viral transmission does not respect borders.
Furthermore, many countries failed to uphold domestic capacities required under the IHR. Up to two thirds of countries reported insufficient health infrastructure, public health workforce, and emergency response capacities to implement the regulations fully (9). When the pandemic hit, critical deficiencies in isolation facilities, contact tracing teams, laboratory systems, and medical supplies hampered the ability of authorities to respond effectively to contain local transmission. Gaps at national level undermined global preparedness.
Finally, non-compliance with WHO guidance was also a major issue. At the outset, WHO recommended against broad international travel restrictions or trade limits, concerned about harm to economies and mobility of medical supplies. However, many countries enacted sweeping travel bans anyway, often too late after seeding from COVID hotspots globally. Political blame games over the origins of the virus led to recriminations rather than open sharing of information to guide collective action. The nonbinding nature of WHO’s emergency recommendations meant they could be, and often were, ignored.
Potential Reforms to Strengthen Pandemic Governance
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted reforms needed to improve global capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to dangerous infectious disease events. Though imperfect, the IHR remains the most viable framework for cooperation. But changes are imperative for it to fulfill its purpose effectively.
Firstly, compliance must be strengthened. Rather than voluntary best efforts, binding obligations should be placed on states to develop core capacities. Accountability mechanisms can be instituted to review country public health assets and rank preparedness. Minimum standards can be established and linked to practical support and financing to build capacity. WHO can be empowered to issue actionable technical guidance, while retaining political neutrality. Compliance will require political will, but can be advanced by incentives, accountability, and assistance.
Secondly, regional approaches may be beneficial to mobilize resources and cooperation in health emergencies. Neighboring countries often face similar vulnerabilities. Regional networks can supplement national and global systems, by pooling assets and establishing peer accountability. The African Union and the European CDC offer examples of area-based approaches to health security issues. Regional platforms can also be launching pads to negotiate global reforms.
Thirdly, sustainable financing mechanisms must underwrite national and global capacities. Budgets for health security are often among the first cut when financial crises arise. Guaranteed funding delinked from economic and political fluctuations is needed. Resources can derive both from national budgets and a coordinated global pool to assist poorer nations. Financing can also be linked to external assessments of preparedness to incentivize continuous improvement.
Finally, conceptions of national sovereignty and self-interest must adjust to realities of global interdependence. Outbreaks that start as local events can rapidly become global crises. There are compelling national interests in collective health security. Hoarding supplies and secrecy around threats ultimately leave everyone more vulnerable. Identifying shared interests is key to building solidarity on global health challenges. Conceptual shifts can help redefine leadership as contributions to public goods that benefit all humanity.
The coronavirus pandemic has provided harsh lessons on the need for stronger collective action to effectively combat global health emergencies. While the International Health Regulations have advanced useful norms, compliance and capacities remain lacking. Countries failed to uphold obligations to develop health systems and share information. Global coordination has been inadequate, with damaging unilateralism. As pandemic impacts have shown, infectious diseases do not respect borders in our interconnected world. All countries remain vulnerable if any is under-prepared.
To strengthen future pandemic response, binding international legal obligations should be bolstered with financing, accountability mechanisms, and political incentives. Regional cooperation can supplement broader global governance. Above all, national interests must be reframed recognizing that global health is indivisible and security is collective. As climate change and other forces raise risks of epidemics, multilateral solidarity on health becomes ever more vital. Without cooperation, viruses and other existential threats will continue exploiting fractures in global society. The coronavirus tragedy has underscored the need for a collective reset toward shared solutions that match the scale of our global interdependence. No country can safeguard its population alone; our security is mutually intertwined.
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- World Health Organization. Pneumonia of unknown cause – China. Disease outbreak news. January 5, 2020. https://www.who.int/emergencies/disease-outbreak-news/item/2020-DON229
- World Health Organization. International Health Regulations 2005. 3rd edition. 2016. https://www.who.int/publications-detail-redirect/9789241580496
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- Katz R, Dowell SF. Revising the International Health Regulations: call for a 2017 review conference. The Lancet Global Health vol. 3,7 (2015): e352-3. doi:10.1016/S2214-109X(15)00025-X