Boris Johnson has said the world was “just as disunited as Achilles and Agamemnon” before the coronavirus pandemic as he called for a new international treaty to tackle not just this global threat, but any in the future too.
Addressing the Global Health Summit hosted by Italy and the EU in Rome, the Prime Minister referenced the Iliad as he drew comparisons between the plague in the ancient Greek epic and the coronavirus outbreak.
Speaking virtually at the event, Mr Johnson said: “I would like to remind everybody, certainly my fellow Europeans, that Western literature begins with a bitter political fight about how to handle a zoonotic plague, because, as you will recall, the Iliad, the fountainhead of Western literature, opens with a row between Achilles and Agamemnon after a fatal new zoonotic disease arrives, hitting first the mules and then the dogs, and then the human beings.”
Mr Johnson said while Achilles would have been “very much in the pro-lockdown party” and “he says they need to get out of there, whereas Agamemnon vehemently disagrees”.
He said: “My point is that almost 2,800 years later, the world has been just as disunited, I’m afraid, as Achilles and Agamemnon. And I think now is the time to come together and to defeat the pandemic and to prevent another.”
Mr Johnson said that just as the Second World War “forged global cooperation” on defence, he hoped to establish a fresh international treaty on pandemic preparedness with the World Health Organisation (WHO), which would set out steps every country should take to prevent another deadly outbreak.
He said this included zero-tariffs on important medical equipment and a worldwide networks of zoonotic research hubs, “so we can identify dangerous pathogens likely to jump from animal to human, from dogs to mules to human beings – to go back to the Iliad – or from bats to pangolins, and so on”.
He added: “Now is the time to move away from the temptations of competing nationalism (…) and instead reassert the power, the duty, the necessity for nations to act together, building collective defence against the common enemy of disease, and protecting all our people for generations to come.”
The speech was not the first time Mr Johnson has likened the pandemic to the story of the Iliad. In January he used the comparison to speculate about the origin of the disease.
He said at the time the pandemic was “the product of an imbalance in man’s relationship with the natural world”.
“Like the original plague which struck the Greeks I seem to remember in book one of the Iliad, it is a zoonotic disease,” he said.
“It originates from bats or pangolins, from the demented belief that if you grind up the scales of a pangolin you will somehow become more potent or whatever it is people believe, it originates from this collision between mankind and the natural world and we’ve got to stop it.”
The speech to the Global Health Summit follows the announcement of the Government’s backing for a new global surveillance network to spot emerging diseases before they can cause fresh pandemics.
The WHO is leading work to develop the “global pandemic radar” to monitor and track new infections and variants.
And the UK and the British-based Wellcome Trust are among the nations and other organisations supporting the initiative.
Downing Street said it would build on British health security expertise to create a network of surveillance hubs, expected to be up and running before the end of the year.