Sunday

16th May 2021

'Shocking' disparities bolster vaccine patent-waiver call

  • So far, only three of the 54 African countries have been able to inoculate even one percent of their citizens (Photo: UNICEF Ethiopia)

"Nobody is safe until everybody is safe," EU leaders have repeated since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Vaccine[s] will be our universal, common good," European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said one year ago.

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"Immunisation is a global public good," European Council president Charles Michel stressed recently.

However, on current averages, one-in-four people in high-income countries have received a coronavirus vaccine, compared with just one-in-over-500 in low-income countries.

The World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last week that some countries that signed up for the COVAX initiative had not received any vaccines, none have received enough, and some were not receiving their second-round allocations on time.

"There remains a shocking and expanding disparity in the global distribution of vaccines," he warned.

This imbalance has triggered calls to waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments - a call first initiated by India and South Africa in the World Trade Organization (WTO) in October.

The proposal has steadily gained support across the globe. More than 100 countries have backed a WTO waiver, together with the World Health Organization, at least 375 civil society groups, plus former heads of state, MEPs, medical experts and trade unions.

However, a small group of countries, particularly high-income countries, have rejected the idea since the outset - including the UK, the EU, the US, Australia, Switzerland, Japan, Norway, Canada, and Brazil.

Pressure on Biden

Meanwhile, pressure is building up on US president Joe Biden's administration to support this initiative.

Last week, a group of 175 former world leaders and Nobel laureates urge the US to suspend intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines in order to ramp up global vaccine production.

Former French president, François Hollande, among the signatories of the letter, said "that the Biden administration is considering waiving barriers related to intellectual property rules offers hope for the international community".

"If the United States supports the lifting of patents, Europe will have to take its responsibilities," he added.

UN human rights commissioner and former Irish president, Mary Robinson, has also backed the waiver, urging European leaders "to put the collective right to safety for all ahead of everything else - and come together to end this pandemic."

The temporary waiver of certain provisions of the WTO's Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) would allow knowledge-sharing and technology transfer to increase pharmaceutical capacity.

Big Pharma lobbying

Meanwhile, an analysis of lobbying by watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) published on Monday (19 April) revealed that how Big Pharma has influenced the EU Commission position on these matters.

During a meeting last December, two lobbyists from the group EFPIA (the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations) met with representatives of DG Trade, the EU Commission branch responsible for the WTO negotiations, to secure stronger rules on intellectual property rights.

A document outlining the position of the pharmaceutical lobby states that the India-South-Africa proposal "represents an extreme measure for an unidentified problem".

"Industry has the capacity to address the pandemic," EFPIA claimed, arguing the key success for a previous global health crisis such as HIV has been partnerships, not weakening intellectual property.

However, according to Nicole Lurie, an expert from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Initiatives, "the challenge is that right now the companies that have got established vaccines are really hesitant to form partnerships, particularly with some developing country manufacturers".

AstraZeneca is the only company that has made agreements with companies in the global south to produce vaccines, according to the CEO analysis.

As of 10 April, only three of the 54 African countries have been able to inoculate one percent of citizens - what the WHO previously described as a "catastrophic moral failure".

Of the nearly 900 million vaccine doses distributed so far across the globe, 428 million went to high-income countries (representing 20 percent of the global population) while 427 million went to lower and middle-income countries (80 percent of the global population), according to Médecins Sans Frontières.

According to the WHO, the more opportunities a virus has to spread, the more chances it has to mutate - potentially undermining the effectiveness of vaccines.

EU to buy 1.8bn BioNTech jabs, in switch to mRNA vaccines

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