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A woman tapes protest signs to the Pfizer logo during a demonstration

A woman tapes protest signs to the Pfizer logo during a demonstration at the company's headquarters on July 14, 2021 in Manhattan. (Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Former WHO Director: Those Upholding Vaccine Apartheid Should Be Tried for 'Crimes Against Humanity'

"Anyone standing in the way of saving lives in the name of private profits should be held responsible."

Jake Johnson

A former World Health Organization director argued Tuesday that rich countries should face prosecution at the International Criminal Court for creating and perpetuating a system of vaccine apartheid, which has left billions of people around the world at risk as the deadly coronavirus pandemic continues to rage.

"We could see another 12 million deaths in the next year. People across the world want justice."

Anthony Costello, a professor of global health at University College London and former director of the WHO's maternal, child, and adolescent health program, wrote in The Guardian that wealthy countries' hoarding of doses and refusal share vaccine technology could constitute "crimes against humanity" and that international lawyers should consider pursuing charges.

"The U.K., Canada, Germany, and other E.U. states have supported a deliberate policy to withhold vaccines from the poorest countries in the world, and defended an immoral and unethical economic system which places Big Pharma patents ahead of millions of lives," Costello wrote, referring to rich countries' ongoing obstruction of a proposed waiver of global intellectual property protections, a measure advocates say is necessary to ramp up lagging vaccine production.

"In this context," he continued, "is the only option left to ask whether the states facilitating this might be prosecuted in the international criminal court, on the grounds of a crime against humanity?"

Costello answered his own question in the affirmative, arguing that other potential solutions—such as appealing "to the moral and ethical values of the big pharma board members and investors"—are doomed to fail.

"We cannot let this carnage drag on," he wrote. "We could see another 12 million deaths in the next year. People across the world want justice. They should have a right to vaccine access, especially when many of the vaccines in question were researched and developed largely by government scientists trained and employed at taxpayers' expense. Anyone standing in the way of saving lives in the name of private profits should be held responsible."

Costello is far from alone in demanding international action against the countries that, for more than a year, have stood in the way of a patent waiver that would allow low-income countries to produce generic coronavirus vaccines for their populations.

Last month, a legal opinion endorsed by more than 80 jurists from around the world argued that Germany, the U.K., and other nations stonewalling the proposed waiver are violating their "obligations to realize the rights to health, equality, life, and science." Weeks later, 2.5 million nurses called on the United Nations to investigate rich countries for blocking the waiver in "clear violation of our right to health—of nurses, caregivers, and patients."

In the absence of a patent waiver, developing nations have been forced to rely on sporadic trickles of vaccine donations from rich countries, which have come under fire for shipping out surplus doses that are on the verge of expiring. Wealthy nations are also stockpiling more doses than they need for their ongoing booster-shot campaigns.

According to a recent analysis by the Financial Times, rich countries administered more booster shots over a four-month period this year than poor nations have administered in total doses in all of 2021.

On Tuesday, the WHO said that if massive inequities in distribution persist, the African continent might not be able to reach 70% vaccination until late 2024.

"We will never get out of this if we don't work together as one world," Flavia Senkubuge, president of the Colleges of Medicine of South Africa, told reporters Tuesday.

At a media briefing last week, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that "the steps countries take today, and in the coming days and weeks will determine how Omicron unfolds," referring to the highly contagious coronavirus variant that has now spread to nearly 60 nations.

"If countries wait until their hospitals start to fill up, it's too late," he warned. "Don't wait. Act now. We are running out of ways to say this, but we will keep saying it: all of us—every government and every individual—must use all the tools we have, right now."

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