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Protesters attached a "pharma greed kills" sign to a mock coffin

Demonstrators attached a sign that read "Pharma Greed Kills" to a mock coffin in London on October 12, 2021. (Photo: Jess Hurd/Global Justice Now)

'That's for Them to Decide': UK Secretary Rebuked for Claiming Vaccine Patent Waiver Won't Be 'Helpful' to Global Poor

One U.K. lawmaker asked when the government would "start putting the need to end this pandemic in front of the financial interests of Big Pharma?"

Andrea Germanos

As 200 million workers on Monday demanded rich nations drop their continued opposition to a proposed waiver of intellectual property protections on coronavirus vaccines at the World Trade Organization, U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid faced sharp criticism for asserting that lifting such rules would not "be helpful" because it would disincentivize the industry from creating life-saving medicines in the future.

"The health secretary can side with Big Pharma billionaires or he can put public health first, he can't do both."

"The secretary of state says that rich countries must do everything they can to ensure more vaccines reach the Global South," Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, said in a floor speech addressing the continued refusal by the Tory-led government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson to support the WTO patent waiver.

"Judging by his actions," Lucas said referring to Javid, "he means doing everything except the main thing they're actually asking for, which is the waiving of intellectual property rules at the World Trade Organization so they can manufacture vaccines themselves."

She asked when Javid would "admit that his government's failure to work with the vast majority of countries in the world" who do support the TRIPS waiver, including the U.S., "is endangering us all" and when he would "start putting the need to end this pandemic in front of the financial interests of Big Pharma."

Javid responded that the "U.K. does not believe that waiving patent rights... on these vaccines would be helpful" but would instead "mean that in the future there would be a huge disincentive for vaccine companies, pharmaceutical companies to come forward and help the world with their technology."

In a tweet, Lucas pushed back against those assertions.

"It's not *helpful* he says. That's for them to decide, not him," she wrote. "More than that, it's a matter of life and death."

The secretary "says rich countries must do 'everything they can' to get more vaccines to countries of South—presumably that's everything except the main thing they're asking for—the waiving of intellectual property rules so they can manufacture vaccines themselves," Lucas added in a separate tweet. 

Javid's argument was also undercut by Global Justice Now, which praised Lucas for asking a "great question."

"The health secretary can side with Big Pharma billionaires or he can put public health first, he can't do both," the advocacy group tweeted.

"The incentives argument is also totally bogus," they added. "The vaccines were all developed with public funding."

The remarks come just after the WTO postponed its ministerial meeting in response to the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus. Scheduled to have begun Nov. 30, the gathering would have considered the waiver proposal that's languished for over a year and is now backed by over 100 nations.

"The waiver can be agreed this week, you must act now or forever hold the preventable deaths of millions more on your conscience."

Social justice campaigners have said the emergence of the new variant is an unsurprising consequence of global vaccine inequity—an injustice they say is fueled in part by the WTO's failure to lift the intellectual property barriers. 

"The waiver is needed now more than ever," Candice Sehoma, South Africa advocacy officer at Doctors Without Border's MSF Access Campaign," said in a statement Monday.

Reveka Papadopoulou, president of MSF's operational center in Geneva, added that "given the severely limited access to the Covid-19 drugs, diagnostics, and vaccines needed to save lives, it’s truly demoralizing that some governments are opposing an initiative like the TRIPS waiver which could have such a positive impact on how low- and middle-income countries are able to tackle this pandemic.”

According to Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch project, the meeting's postponement necessitates "emergency" action from the WTO on the waiver. The group is encouraging people to take part in global events this week to add pressure on governments to waiver holdouts including the U.K. and Germany to back the proposal.

The Council of Global Union, which represents over 200 million workers, is also calling on the WTO to take emergency action this week, and in a statement Monday, the union group called on the U.K., Switzerland, Germany, and the European Commission to drop their opposition to the waiver.

“I speak directly to the heads of state for the U.K., Germany, and Switzerland when I say this: your decisions are putting millions of lives and livelihoods at risk," said Stephen Cotton, Chair of the CGU, and General Secretary of the International Transport Workers' Federation, in a statement. 

"The world is watching you, as panic and anxiety spread at the rise of a new variant that may have been prevented if you had acted sooner," he continued. "The waiver can be agreed this week, you must act now or forever hold the preventable deaths of millions more on your conscience."


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