Call for Action Against COVID-19 ‘Criminals’ Blocking Vaccine Patent Waiver
The Global Nurses United (GNU), which represents more than 30 leading nurses and healthcare workers unions on every continent, has written to the United Nations (UN) demanding an urgent investigation into COVID-19 “criminals” who are obstructing the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) bid to “temporarily waive patent protections on vaccine recipes”.
In the letter, dated November 29 and addressed to Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, the UN special rapporteur on physical and mental health, the GNU has alleged that the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom (UK), Switzerland, Norway and Singapore are “endangering millions of lives around the world” and violating “our right to health—of nurses, caregivers, and patients”.
The union, representing more than 2.5 million healthcare workers, wrote that it has “witnessed the staggering numbers of deaths and the immense suffering caused by political inaction”.
Pointing to the failure of pharma companies and governments in ensuring equal distribution of vaccines, the GNU wrote: “High-income countries have procured upwards of 7 billion confirmed vaccine doses while low-income countries have only been able to procure approximately 300 million doses. This has created what public health advocates around the world have described as ‘vaccine apartheid’.”
The solution to the unequal distribution of vaccines, which “provides for the possibility for the development of new variants some of which may be resistant to the currently available vaccines”, is a temporary waiver on intellectual property protection for vaccines and treatment. But “certain governments are protecting the profits of big pharmaceutical companies at the expense of public health” and do not support the proposal, according to the GNU.
South Africa, along with India, has been pressing the WTO to help improve access to vaccines by waiving the multinational Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. Supporters of waiving the TRIPS provisions feel that such a waiver would allow vaccines to be manufactured “more widely, improving global distribution”. In fact, US President Joe Biden called for WTO to take this step following the emergence of the Omicron variant.
The letter cited an “immediate threat to people’s right to health” from the EU, the UK, Norway, Switzerland and Singapore. “These countries have violated our rights and the rights of our patients—and caused the loss of countless lives— of nurses and other caregivers and those we have cared for.”
Stating that as frontline workers, “we are well placed to testify against the violation of the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health because of the impact of a delayed COVID-19 TRIPS waiver,” the union said that, at least, 115,000 medical and healthcare staff around the world have died and that while 40% on average have been fully vaccinated, the figure is lower than one in 10 in Africa and the western Pacific.
The letter stated that pharma companies want to preserve their monopoly and high prices for their vaccines. “For drugs repurposed for COVID-19, the pharmaceutical industry is filing patents simply to extend their market monopoly on the medicine. This is an all-too-familiar move by the pharmaceutical industry which aims to maximise profits and artificially extend the term of monopoly on known medicines while the additional patents are not linked to any genuine innovation.”
The petitioners said that intellectual property monopoly has led to the concentration of production capacity and control in the hands of a few high-income countries. It has also made “governments dependent on sole/few registered suppliers in the global market, the lack of acquisition of adequate doses of vaccines and therapeutics in many states, particularly in the global south and the domination of the ‘vaccine and therapeutic market’ by a few actors, principally in the global north, due to high prices set by the pharma industry. The failure to enable global licensing for mass and wide-scale distribution of vaccines, therapeutics and other COVID-19 healthcare technologies is also result of this monopoly, the GNU added.
Replying to the letter, Mofokeng said that she shared the demand of the nurses: “The nurses’ core demand is one I share: States have a collective responsibility to use all available means to facilitate faster access to vaccines, including by introducing [the] temporary waiver…” Nurses and healthcare workers “have witnessed the most painful and heart-wrenching effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she added.
Jibin TC, president, United Nurses Association (India’s largest trade union of nurses) said: “We have always been fighting two battles: against the virus in the emergency wards and against corporate interests in the halls of power.”
Deborah Burger, co-president, National Nurses United, the US, said that the unequal distribution of vaccines and the resultant likelihood of new Covid variants “poses a dire risk to all people around the world”.
Shirley Marshal Díaz Morales, vice-president, Federação Nacional dos Enfermeiros union, Brazil said: “It is way past time for the governments of the world to prioritise the health of the people over the profits of multinational corporations by approving the vaccine waiver.”
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