World Health Organization member states reached a consensus Sunday on kick-starting the process towards creating a pandemic treaty setting out how to handle the next global health crisis.
Countries agreed to set up an intergovernmental body charged with drafting and negotiating a WHO accord on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.
Nations are meeting in Geneva from Monday to Wednesday to discuss an international agreement setting out how to handle the next pandemic -- which experts fear is only a matter of time.
Sunday's draft decision should be formalised during the meeting.
The gathering comes with the planet still besieged by Covid-19, nearly two years on from the first recorded cases, and now shaken by Omicron, the new Covid variant of concern.
The economic turmoil and millions of lives lost in the pandemic triggered calls for new international defences strong enough to prevent a repeat disaster.
The three-page draft decision was posted on the WHO's website.
"WHO member states today informally agreed to start negotiations on a pandemic treaty. Now the resolution needs to be formally adopted tomorrow by world leaders," the European Union's diplomatic mission in Geneva said.
"The events of the last weeks demonstrate more than ever the need for global solidarity and leadership. We look forward to world leaders demonstrating their joint commitment tomorrow. The momentum is there -- the planet must be better prepared."
This week's meeting of the World Health Assembly -- the WHO's decision-making body comprising all 194 member states -- is an unprecedented special session on how to handle the next pandemic.
The final outcome -- whether a treaty or another formulation -- should be sealed in 2024.
The special session is going ahead, despite travel restrictions relating to the discovery of Omicron.
The World Trade Organization's four-day ministerial conference in Geneva next week was postponed due to the new variant of concern.
A European diplomat told AFP that the emergence of Omicron had sharpened minds.
"It shows this is far from over, and we really need the world to get together on this," he said.
"It shows how it important it is that we come up with legal obligations towards each other to share information."
The draft decision says WHO member states agree to establish "an intergovernmental negotiating body (INB)... to draft and negotiate a WHO convention, agreement or other international instrument on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response".
The INB's first meeting must be no later than March 1 next year to elect two co-chairs and four vice-chairs.
Under their facilitation, the INB will then start to "identify the substantive elements of the instrument", and draw up a working draft by August 1.
A progress report will be presented at the regular World Health Assembly annual gathering in 2023, with the final outcome presented for consideration at the 2024 WHA.
The United States -- uneasy about committing early to a treaty -- was wrangling over the placing of commas and their implications for how the outcome might be adopted, but agreed to compromise.
British ambassador Simon Manley said the decision "may only be the end of the beginning, but the flexibility shown and the breadth of support is a good portent for the vital efforts to come".
The text acknowledged the need to address the "development and distribution of, and unhindered, timely and equitable access to, medical countermeasures such as vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics".
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has regularly hit out at the chasm between rich and poor countries' access to jabs, tests, treatments and protective equipment for tackling Covid-19.