After UN Security Council calls for vaccine equity, WHO pushes for action on patents

In a rare show of unanimity, the UN Security Council approved a resolution Feb. 26 that encouraged Covid-19 vaccine equity and called for a “sustained humanitarian pause” to local conflicts.

Speaking with journalists afterwards, World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Ghebreyesus argued that more could be done.

“I understand full well that all governments have an obligation to protect their own people. But the best way to do that is by suppressing the virus everywhere at the same time,” said Ghebreyesus.

“Now is the time to use every tool to scale up production, including licensing and technology transfer, and where necessary, intellectual property waivers. If not now, then when?”

The WHO leader’s words add weight to calls inside the World Trade Organisation (WTO)—calls that are already supported by about 100 countries—for a waiver from certain provisions of patent rules to allow greater production of vaccines. 

Given that Canada is not yet among the countries supporting the waivers, Canadians are invited to sign a petition to the House of Commons in support of the proposal.

Together with calls within the G20 nations and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to release $3 trillion of global reserve funds (“Special Drawing Rights”) to support crisis response and recovery efforts in developing countries, action in the WTO on patents represent the two largest challenges to “standard operating procedures” in the IMF and WTO seen in many years.

We’ve done this before

These systems have been challenged before. In the IMF’s case, it was the demand for debt relief by so-called “highly-indebted poor countries” in the 1980s and 1990s that inspired massive Jubilee campaigns in many countries, including Canada. Now, more than 215 groups from around the world have sent an open letter to G20 Finance Ministers and the IMF calling for a quick allocation of global reserve funds – Special Drawing Rights – to support developing countries’ global coronavirus crisis responses and recovery efforts.

“Stop AIDS! Keep The Promise!” was the cry outside the International AIDS Conference in Toronto in 2006. (Jim Hodgson photo)

With the WTO, it was the need to ease patent protection so as to produce less costly generic versions of medicines used to treat HIV and AIDS. Again, efforts were broadly supported by churches and NGOs around the world. Eventually, in at least partial responses, less-costly generics and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria helped save lives in many countries.

Vaccine Equity

The WHO has long called upon rich countries to ensure that vaccines are shared equitably. The global organisation is one of the leaders of COVAX, a program that aims to supply 1.3 billion vaccine doses to low- and middle-income countries this year. But so far, COVAX has had a slow roll-out.

The British-drafted resolution in the Security Council, co-sponsored by 112 countries, recognized the importance of extensive use of vaccines in this pandemic time as a “global public good for health.” It emphasised the need to develop international partnerships to scale-up manufacturing and distribution capacities.

Further, the Council requested the Secretary-General to provide a full assessment of the impediments to vaccine access in the pandemic response. It said it would review situations brought to its attention by the Secretary-General where hostilities and armed group activities are impeding COVID‑19 vaccination and to consider what further measures may be necessary to ensure such impediments are removed, and hostilities paused to enable vaccination.

It emphasized the urgent need for “solidarity, equity and efficacy,” inviting donation of vaccine doses from developed economies and all those in a position to do so to low- and middle-income countries and other countries in need, particularly through the COVAX facility.

These are complex initiatives but they—together with action for patent and debt relief, and additional funds for vaccines and other public health need—are essential for overcoming the global pandemic and for the reconstruction that will follow.

People in Canada are also invited to sign a petition to ensure full access to Covid-19 vaccines by all migrants regardless of immigration status. See the Vaccines For All petition here.

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