Imagine if China had refused to share Covid-19's genetic sequences with other countries. Vaccine development would have been delayed indefinitely. Monitoring the virus would have been next to impossible.

Thankfully, that didn't happen. Chinese scientists shared the full SARS-CoV-2 sequence on Jan. 10, 2020, thus kickstarting the development of multiple vaccines created in record time.

But such a nightmarish alternative scenario is not farfetched. China could have referred to an international agreement known as the Nagoya Protocol to indefinitely withhold this vital data, even as the death toll soared around the globe.

Preventing nations from abusing the Nagoya Protocol will require another binding international agreement -- one that specifically obliges countries to share pathogens in a timely manner, which would undoubtedly benefit society as a whole. Any commonsense approach to the Nagoya Protocol would exempt pathogens like SARS-CoV-2.

Thankfully, the member states of the World Health Organization have a chance to enact such reforms through the International Health Regulations, a legally binding international instrument currently under revision, or through the recently proposed international treaty on pandemics.

The Nagoya Protocol, which was adopted back in 2010 to effectively clarify the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), gives nations the rights to their "genetic resources" -- meaning everything from plants and animals to fungi and even bacteria, depending on how the country implements the protocol locally.

We could witness a situation where if country B wants access to a rare herb that grows only in country A, country B needs the informed consent of country A. Moreover, the protocol requires that a mutual agreement be reached to ensure that country A receives its fair share of any benefits derived from the herb's use. Absent that, the Nagoya Protocol allows country A to deny access to the herb.

This agreement makes sense for things like vegetables or wildlife. Protecting the rich variety of plants and animals on earth, and ensuring that countries are fairly compensated for those natural resources, is a worthy goal.

However, including pathogens under the Nagoya Protocol does not make sense. When we are confronted with the outbreak of an epidemic like Ebola, SARS, or MERS -- let alone a global pandemic such as Covid-19 -- unhindered and immediate access to potentially lifesaving data about a pathogen becomes a matter of life and death.

And yet, the Convention on Biological Diversity, of which the Nagoya Protocol is a part, doesn't directly specify whether pathogens are covered by the agreement. Instead, it's up to individual countries to settle the matter for themselves in their own national laws. This puts scientists in a difficult position. Their scientific instinct pushes them to immediately share new discoveries with peers to kick off the research; yet they might face sanctions for not following environmental protocols.

Had China decided to invoke the protocol for Covid-19 and implemented national legislation covering pathogens, it could have withheld the virus' genetic sequence unless countries agreed to pay royalties on any vaccine that resulted from that data. Meanwhile, each individual country seeking access to the sequence would have had to make a separate deal with China, a process that could take years.

Such behavior would not have been without precedent.

Consider the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), a coronavirus that emerged in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Shortly after the virus' appearance, Mohammed Ali Zaki, an Egyptian microbiologist based in Saudi Arabia, began investigating the illness. He sent a sample of the virus to a Dutch lab.

Instead of supporting this effort to better understand the virus, however, the Saudi government tried to block the sharing of the virus by appealing to its rights under the Convention on Biological Diversity. And the government's refusal to share samples of the virus hampered the effort to control the outbreak. To this day, no vaccine against MERS exists.

As currently written, the Nagoya Protocol makes it highly likely that such an episode will occur again. Indeed, we have already seen delays in sharing of seasonal influenza, Zika, and Ebola virus samples. In effect, the agreement creates an unintended financial incentive for countries to hinder infectious-disease response efforts. For some nations, this incentive could prove too strong to resist. One could imagine a country exploiting the Nagoya Protocol to withhold a virus sample, genetic sequence, or other life-saving data until it receives a payment.

Obliging countries to immediately share pathogens with pandemic potential would exempt pathogens from national legislation around Nagoya and ensure international cooperation during future pandemics. It would also help the international community make sure that no country is ever rewarded for allowing a deadly disease to spread around the world unchecked.

Thomas Cueni is director-general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations.