The commodification of vital medical products undermines the global health response
(New York) – Wealthy governments and pharmaceutical companies are compromising a rapid and fair public health response to vaccines, therapeutic drugs and Covid-19 tests, Human Rights Watch researchers said in a report paper released ahead of a World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting this week. Human Rights Watch also published a video on the subject. Governments and businesses urgently need to share knowledge and technology to save lives, protect the right to health, and ensure that everyone can benefit from scientific research, especially with the highly contagious Delta variant.
The paper, “COVID-19 Exposes Warped Global Health Power: System Needs Course Correction», Published on August 31, 2021 in the Journal of Business and Human Rights, explains how a handful of high-income countries that have come under pressure from powerful pharmaceutical companies have blocked a proposal to temporarily waive global trade and intellectual property rules in order to expand access to life-saving vaccines and other health products. Rely on Human Rights Watch research and analysis on Covid-19 vaccine supply issues, it shows how governments have abdicated their responsibility to regulate pharmaceutical companies. Governments funding the development of the Covid-19 vaccine with public funds have not conditioned these funds on affordability and technology sharing, leaving companies to decide how, when and where they will manufacture, distribute and price the vaccines, Human Rights Watch said. Instead of sharing knowledge and technology, some governments are redistributing insufficient quantities of vaccines to the poorest countries while leaving companies to set the prices.
“Waiting for the benevolence of rich governments and pharmaceutical companies has dealt a fatal blow to fundamental rights,” said Aruna kashyap, associate director of affairs and human rights at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the article. “It is unacceptable that rich governments reduce vital health care to a marketable commodity and use their power at the WTO to subjugate the right to health to pharmaceutical and commercial interests.
Access to Covid-19 vaccines remains deeply unequal. Three quarters of the more than 5 billion doses of vaccine administered worldwide have gone to just 10 countries, According to the WHO. As some wealthy governments began to distribute third “booster” shots, only two percent of the African population are fully immunized. The WHO Director-General called for a moratorium on booster doses to allow vaccines to reach people who have not yet received their first dose.
The pandemic has exposed the dangers of concentrating life-saving vaccine manufacturing capacity in a few countries where governments have refused to prioritize and demand intellectual property waivers and technology transfers for rapid production. diverse and global. This has created deep inequalities in access to health products that can save lives.
Months of debates at the WTO have left the WHO and public health authorities around the world in limbo. In May, the United States indicated that it would support negotiations on the text of the waiver proposal. But the European Commission, representing member states of the European Union, Switzerland and several other high-income governments have consistently blocked and blocked efforts to quickly pass the waiver. Negotiations resume in Geneva on September 14.
Meanwhile, vaccine shortages and inequitable vaccine distribution policies have led to vaccine inequalities in a number of countries around the world, including India, Australia, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Brazil.
The proposal to temporarily waive global trade and intellectual property rules, which has the support of more than 100 governments, if adopted by the WTO, would indicate that, in the context of the ongoing pandemic, the provision of vital health care comes first.
International law recognizes the right of everyone to benefit from scientific progress. Since the start of the pandemic, United Nations human rights entities have repeatedly stated that states have an obligation to share the benefits of scientific research. Governments have obligations in terms of international cooperation. They must refrain from any action which interferes, directly or indirectly, with the enjoyment of rights in other countries. This obligation extends to their actions within intergovernmental organizations such as the WTO.
Most governments have also ruled out WHO technology sharing pools. WHO first created a technology sharing pool for Covid-19 medical products in May 2020 which would have enabled the sharing of vaccine technology to promote faster production and distribution. However, only 41 governments have approved the swimming pool. Most of the rest, including the US, UK, Germany and many other EU member states and the European Commission, have yet to report their participation in the pool. None of these governments used their influence or influence to convince the pharmaceutical companies whose vaccines they funded to join the tech pool.
The WTO is an intergovernmental organization that regulates and facilitates international trade between nations. Its promotion of trade and the protection of intellectual property have always taken priority over health, the environment or human well-being. This pattern had deadly consequences during a pandemic by slowing the public response when at least 4.5 million lives have already been lost.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that the system has long needed a course correction in order for the WHO to be empowered, not weakened, by the WTO,” said Marguerite Wurth, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the article. “Participating in WHO’s technology-sharing platforms and temporarily relinquishing intellectual property rules are essential ways forward. “
States should not thwart the efforts of other States to fulfill their human rights obligations, including when negotiating international agreements or participating in decisions as members of international organizations, for example by invoking intellectual property protections to slow the distribution or production of vaccines. In addition to violating their human rights obligations, obstructing a rapid health response is a huge setback for the ability of low- and middle-income countries to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
The pandemic has sparked discussions on an international pandemic treaty that will take place in the coming months. Any pandemic treaty should include human rights protection, including triggers for automatic intellectual property disclaimers and impose greater transparency and accountability on global sourcing efforts.
“We urgently need enforceable global health standards that de-commodify life-saving medical products and prioritize people’s health and safety instead of dragging their feet and equivocating,” said Kyle knight, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and third co-author of the article. “A powerful minority of wealthy governments have cynically prioritized their interests and those of their businesses as global infections and deaths soar. “