The O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law serves as both co-chair and executive secretariat of the GHSA Legal Preparedness Action Package. This Expert Column is the first in a multi-part series to discuss legal preparedness and the work of the Action Package, featuring many of its members.

Every minute during a health emergency can mean lives lost, so we must address legal challenges between emergencies, not during them.

Legal preparedness is critical for effectively responding to public health emergencies (PHE), yet it has been historically neglected. For more than two years, member states of the World Health Organization (WHO) have been engaged in negotiations on what could be the world’s first treaty on pandemic prevention and preparedness.

COVID-19 exposed how ill-equipped the world was to handle public health emergencies. We saw challenges in accessing vaccines, sufficient coordination of emergency response agencies, regulator obstacles in obtaining personal protective equipment, and other significant barriers to a rapid response. At the 2021 WHO’s International Health Regulations Monitoring & Evaluation Framework consultation, numerous countries publicly cited legal barriers as one of the major challenges during COVID-19.

In response, the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) Legal Preparedness Action Package (LP AP) was launched to promote legal preparedness as a critical capacity for an effective public health emergency response and for strengthening global health security. Co-chaired by the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, the United States government, and the government of Argentina, the goal of the LP AP is to bring countries and experts together to build a solid foundation and common understanding of the competencies necessary for strengthening public health emergency legal preparedness.

Since its launch, the LP AP has grown to 40 members across diverse regions, sectors, and disciplines. Members collaborate on creating technical tools to guide and support countries in strengthening their legal preparedness capacity, raise greater awareness globally about the role that legal preparedness plays in preparing for and responding to public health emergencies, and facilitate the exchange of experiences and expertise through internal discussion and external events.

One of the most significant contributions of the LP AP has been developing a definition, or common understanding, of legal preparedness in the context of health emergencies — such a definition did not previously exist.

In an effort to deepen countries’ understanding of key issues and concepts emerging from negotiations on amending the International Health Regulations (IHR) and developing a pandemic agreement, the LP hosted a series of webinars on topics ranging from basic concepts of international law to global governance for global health, equity, ethics, human rights, and the rule of law to liability risk management for equity. Dialogue from these conversations has helped to create guidance tools and collaborative scholarship on the issue.

In addition to addressing pandemic preparedness, the LP AP Legal Mapping Sub-Working Group has also been conducting a legal mapping project as a jumping point for developing a legal framework guide on legal preparedness that countries can use in their capacity assessments, including their joint external evaluation.

Right now, the LP AP is in the midst of developing the capacity-building sub-working group. The group will:

  • Work to develop training modules to strengthen the legal literacy of public health officials and enhance the ability of legal officers to understand and utilize legal instruments to strengthen national systems for PHE preparedness
  • Create a global network of legal preparedness experts that countries can leverage through internal and external initiatives
  • Develop an academic curriculum on legal preparedness that academic institutions can use to train the next generation of experts,

As the Global Health Security Agenda moves into its next phase, there is an urgent need to promote legal preparedness at all levels. Because of the complexity of addressing numerous legal barriers that present themselves during health emergencies, it is vital to emphasize partnership — especially across sectors, disciplines, and regions.

As GHSA enters its third phase this year, the LP AP sees many opportunities for experts to continue to promote legal preparedness at all levels through various avenues, thereby strengthening global health security.

Learn more about the Global Health Security Agenda Legal Preparedness Action Package.