Protests against vaccine patents

Protesters walk with coffins from Parliament Square to Downing Street during a protest organized by the group Global Justice Now on October 12, 2021. (Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

Nobel Laureates, World Leaders Mark Two Years of Covid With Simple Call: End the Patents

"Rich country leaders are protecting pharmaceutical monopolies on Covid-19 vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics over the health and lives of billions of people," said the former U.N. chief.

Marking the two-year anniversary of the World Health Organization's official Covid-19 pandemic declaration, more than 130 current and former world leaders, Nobel laureates, scientists, and humanitarians published an open letter Friday imploring rich countries to finally end their obstruction of a proposed patent waiver and share key vaccine technology with the world.

"The European Union, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland continue to block the lifting of intellectual property rules which would enable the redistribution and scale-up of Covid-19 vaccines, test, and treatment manufacturing in the Global South," reads the new letter, which was signed by the ex-leaders of more than 40 countries--including Malawi's former president Joyce Banda--and prominent human rights advocates, from UNAIDS executive director Winnie Byanyima to former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

"Let us be clear: this pandemic is far from over in Africa and across the world."

Released ahead of major global demonstrations marking the grim pandemic anniversary, the letter argues that a patent waiver proposed by South Africa and India back in October 2020 would help fast-track production of coronavirus vaccines, which remain heavily concentrated in wealthy countries two years into the pandemic.

To date, the pharmaceutical firms that largely control global vaccine production have resisted calls to share their publicly funded technology, leaving poor nations to rely on charity for their supply of shots--an imbalance that has proved disastrous. Earlier this week, Moderna's billionaire CEO Stephane Bancel said working with a key WHO technology transfer hub in South Africa that's attempting to make its own mRNA shot would not be a "good use of our time."

In their open letter on Friday, the campaigners argued that the current approach to global vaccinations--under which profit-seeking companies have the "the power to decide who lives and who dies"--is "immoral, entirely self-defeating, and also an ethical, economic, and epidemiological failure":

"We appeal to world leaders to end this strategy of counter-productive nationalism and of protecting pharmaceutical monopolies and to finally act with international solidarity," the letter reads. "Now is the time to renew the commitments made at the founding of the World Health Organization, where all states agreed to deliver "the highest attainable standard of health as a fundamental right of every human being."

The letter's signatories called on governments around the world to take five specific steps:

  1. Urgently agree and implement a global roadmap to deliver the WHO goal of fully vaccinating 70% of people by mid-2022, and beyond this ensure sustained, timely, and equitable access worldwide to Covid-19 vaccines, treatments, tests, and other medical technologies, including next generations effective and safe Covid-19 vaccines and medical technologies.
  2. Maximize the production of safe and effective vaccines and other Covid-19 products by suspending relevant intellectual property rules and ensuring the mandatory pooling of all Covid-19 related knowledge, data, and technologies so that any nation can produce or buy sufficient and affordable doses of vaccines, treatments, and tests.
  3. Invest public funding now in a rapid and massive increase in vaccine manufacturing as well as research and development (R&D) capacity to build a global distributed network capable of and governed to deliver affordable vaccines as global public goods to all nations.
  4. Make Covid-19 vaccines, treatments, and tests available to governments and institutions at a price as close to the true cost as possible, and provided free of charge to everyone, everywhere, and allocated according to need.
  5. Scale up sustainable investment in public health systems to ensure that low- and middle-income country governments have adequate resources to get shots into arms and save lives. These investments will pay dividends in the global economy and help restore economic and development gains which the global Covid-19 pandemic has partially reversed.

"Every life lost now to vaccine apartheid is avoidable," the letter concludes. "Only a People's Vaccine--based on the principles of equity and solidarity--can protect all of humanity and create a fairer, safer, more prosperous world."

While countries across the globe have begun lifting coronavirus-related public health restrictions, Covid-19 continues to kill nearly 7,000 people on average each day, with poor countries bearing the brunt of the devastation. According to new research by the People's Vaccine Alliance, the coronavirus death toll is four times higher in lower-income countries than in rich nations.

"Every life lost now to vaccine apartheid is avoidable."

Pharmaceutical companies, meanwhile, continue to rake in huge profits from vaccines that were developed with the support of massive infusions of public money. Oxfam International estimates that the U.S.-based corporation Pfizer is making more than $1 million in profit per hour from its vaccine, which relies on government-developed technology.

"Let us be clear: this pandemic is far from over in Africa and across the world," said Banda, who served as Malawi's president from 2012 to 2014. "We are seeing, with each day, thousands of avoidable deaths. We are seeing women and girls being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, through lost educational opportunities, domestic violence, and economic hardship. We must recapture the spirit of solidarity to end the suffering and create a better future."

"That starts now," she continued, "with ending these callous pharmaceutical monopolies on Covid-19 vaccines, so Africa and the world can tackle this crisis and the next."

Just 13.7% of people in low-income countries have received at least one coronavirus vaccine dose, according to the latest figures from Our World in Data. The head of the WHO recently warned that nearly 90 countries are not on track to fully vaccinate 70% of their populations by the start of July 2022.

Millions of people have died of Covid-19 since South Africa and India introduced their patent waiver proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO), where the governments of rich countries have stalled and undermined negotiations for more than a year.

While European countries--including Germany and the United Kingdom--have led opposition to the patent waiver, the United States has been accused of taking a passive stance at WTO talks despite endorsing a waiver in May. One former WHO official recently argued that rich countries should face prosecution at the International Criminal Court for perpetuating deadly vaccine inequities.

"Rich country leaders are protecting pharmaceutical monopolies on Covid-19 vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics over the health and lives of billions of people," Ban, who led the U.N. from 2007 to 2016, said in a statement Friday. "And we can only imagine how damaging a new profoundly lethal variant could be for everyone on the planet. That is why this is a historic test of multilateralism. It truly affects us all."

"If world leaders can't rise to the challenge of vaccine equity," Ban warned, "they diminish hope that they will rise to the existential challenge of tackling the climate crisis."

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