The World Health Organization is—if you believe Tucker Carlson—about to seize "total authority over emergency operations in the United States if there's ever a 'public health emergency.'"
What's more: "The White House is going to be the muscle for the director of the World Health Organization," exclaimed the Fox News anchor.
Scary stuff! But is it true? "News to me," deadpanned WHO communications director Gabby Stern on Twitter.
The right-wing Fox pundit's Thursday-night diatribe was in fact just the latest articulation of a conspiracy theory that's been doing the rounds in recent weeks, particularly among those who were already opposed to COVID lockdown measures.
The theory focuses on a "pandemic treaty" that is being thrashed out under the auspices of the WHO.
Per Carlson, the Biden administration has eliminated provisions in the draft text so as to give the U.N. public-health agency unlimited power: "As originally written, they couldn't do anything without the permission of their member countries' governments. But thanks to the change that the Biden administration pushed, effectively there is no limit at all on WHO's power and then it gets worse from there."
Why that's wrong
So let's start here.
Yes, there is a pandemic treaty that is in the very early stages of being drawn up—so early, in fact, that the White House can't possibly be "eliminating provisions."
"At no points have governments agreed to what it's going to include and won't include," said Clare Wenham, associate professor of global health policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. "No-one has got the text of it yet—the text hasn't been drafted yet."
What did happen a few weeks ago is that the WHO asked governments to send in their wish-lists for the treaty, which will then inform the contents of that first draft.
According to Wenham, Carlson has probably confused the pandemic treaty process with changes that are being made to the International Health Regulations (IHR), a legally binding global agreement that has been around since 1969 and been repeatedly revised, mostly recently in 2005.
"I can understand why there's confusion, but there are separate processes that are interlinked," Wenham said.
The IHR, which comprises technical public health guidance for how governments should and shouldn't respond to public health emergencies, shows we already have international law covering disease control.
And, given how governments widely ignored the rules when COVID-19 struck, it also demonstrates the fundamental limitation of international law: everyone may agree to it, but good luck enforcing it.
China flouted the IHR by suppressing news of the virus's emergence and drawing a curtain over the disease's origins.
Many countries broke the rules by instituting strict travel bans without solid scientific evidence to back them up, and by failing to coordinate the distribution of medical equipment in the pandemic's early months.
Even the WHO arguably messed up, by failing to declare an emergency when cases were already spreading around the world.
"The pandemic treaty is supposed to demonstrate the political commitment alongside the public health law," said Wenham. "The idea is that public health law was insufficient during COVID, so we need to bring political commitment on top."
Hence the stated aim of the treaty. As a host of world leaders put it in a joint statement back in March 2021: "We must be better prepared to predict, prevent, detect, assess and effectively respond to pandemics in a highly coordinated fashion."
Specifically, that means new alert systems, more data sharing, better research, and improved "regional and global production and distribution of medical and public health counter-measures such as vaccines, medicines, diagnostics and personal protective equipment."
But back to Tucker Carlson, who is outraged at the idea of the WHO sharing "real-time information about travel measures":
"So, you're going to find out exactly when you're allowed to get on a bus or train or airplane or how about your bicycle? Will they regulate that too? Maybe. Now, the World Health Organization has sought this authority for years. Of course, who doesn't want more power?"
"At no point has anyone ever suggested the WHO is going to have the power to enforce lockdowns or supersede sovereign interest," said Wenham. "The WHO aren't going to be suggesting lockdowns and, even if they were to, governments don't have to do it."
The WHO itself told Fortune in an emailed statement that all 194 of its member countries are involved in the treaty's development "on equal terms," and the goal was to "promote global collaboration to prevent, prepare for and respond to crises in the future, and preventing a repeat of the COVID-19 pandemic."
"As with all international instruments, any accord, if and when agreed, would be determined by governments themselves, who would take any action while considering their own national laws and regulations," the agency said.
But what about the U.S.'s proposed amendments to the IHR? Is there a "there" there?
It is certainly true that the changes would—if the U.S. got the rest of the world's backing—increase the powers of the WHO's director-general, who is currently Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
For example, if there were an outbreak of something nasty in a country, the director-general would no longer have to get the government of that country's agreement before declaring a public health emergency of international concern.
She or he would also be able to base their assessment on information coming from non-official channels, and the country would have just two days to start playing ball, otherwise the WHO could go public with the information.
Some legal scholars find these proposals controversial.
"Have technocratic, biomedical approaches, developed and implemented from the top down primarily through executive action, worked well in response to COVID-19, justifying a further extension and centralization of global emergency powers at WHO?" asked former WHO legal consultant Silvia Behrendt and University College Dublin law lecturer Amrei Müller in a critique of the U.S. proposals this week.
But again, said the LSE's Wenham, there would be no way for Tedros or whoever succeeds him to enforce the new rules, beyond naming and shaming countries that break them.
"There has never been a time when the director-general of the WHO has done anything without consent of governments," she said. "It's not like he can do anything. Member states don't listen, and ignore anyway if they want."
"It's international law—there's no world police, there's no enforcement mechanism, there's no sanctions."
The last word should perhaps go to Tedros himself, who said Monday that "there has been a small minority of groups making misleading statements and purposefully distorting facts."
"WHO is not just fighting COVID-19: There is an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, an unknown hepatitis affecting children around the world and monkeypox affecting a number of countries," Tedros said.
"WHO is working with national authorities to respond quickly and effectively to these outbreaks. The last few years have taught us about our own collective fragility and the threat to economies and security of not working together.
"The [treaty] process is at the very beginning of a multiyear member state-led negotiation, which will only be finalized in 2024 after multiple public hearings around the world. And all voices will be heard."
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com