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Pressure mounts on the WTO for a people’s vaccine to combat Covid

“Every day the EU and countries like Australia block this waiver would be costing lives”

“The US’s recent decision to back the waiver of intellectual property rights of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) shows that people power works,” said Sam Cossar, Co-coordinator of the Economic Justice and Resisting Neoliberalism program of Friends of the Earth International (FOEI).

“The pressure is really now on the European Union (EU) and Australia not to continue blocking it. It is absolutely unacceptable for these wealthy countries to be holding vaccines at the expense of the rest of the world and not coming to the table of negotiations around the waiver,” he added.

The WTO has been holding special meetings to discuss a proposal submitted last October by South Africa and India, which aims to suspend [1] the WTO’s agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic. The goal is to facilitate the transfer of technology and scientific knowledge to developing countries, in order to ramp up the global production of vaccines and other necessary equipment.

The TRIPS waiver proposal has the support now of over 115 countries. Thanks to the pressure from a massive people-powered campaign, the US [2] and New Zealand [3] have now also announced their support.

Pressure is mounting on other wealthy states – notably the United Kingdom, European Union, Australia, Brazil, Japan, Norway and Switzerland – who are still blocking this lifesaving opportunity and choosing to protect the profits of pharmaceutical corporations, Friends of the Earth International warned last Friday [4].

Sam Cossar told Real World Radio that the waiver being negotiated would allow faster, equitable and affordable vaccine access, that would save lives and be the basis of a just recovery from the Covid crisis [5]. “The Covid vaccine is a crucial step in building a just recovery,” he said.

The activist from Friends of the Earth International explained that temporarily waiving property rights on the technology, know-how and licenses for Covid vaccine production would mean that more countries and companies could produce them locally and at a lower price. “This would make vaccines more quickly available and more affordable for everyone, especially people in the global South, who currently face a long wait for vaccination and treatments, some until 2023,” Cossar warned. “Many have been forced to rely on the corporate led COVAX system [6] for receiving vaccines which is currently failing to provide sufficient supplies,” he added. The TRIPS waiver proposal is then of great importance: “No one is safe until we are all safe.”

On April 29, the Coordinator of the Development and Intellectual Property Programme at Third World Network (TWN), Sangeeta Shashikant, denounced to Real World Radio [7] the fact that “today high income countries are vaccinating 25 times faster than the lowest income countries.” “Intellectual property waivers are a must in the context of a pandemic,” she added.

Cossar explained this unequal access to vaccines happens because “big pharmaceutical companies are not voluntarily sharing the technology for the common good, but protecting their profits. So we are seeing a slow and unequal vaccine rollout which is unacceptable.”

Many are warning that, for instance, in Asia, India [8] is facing a deadly second wave of Covid-19, with rapidly increasing deaths – currently over 300,000 cases daily – and a collapsing health system. The threat of new strains is growing across the region, where loss of livelihoods and the ongoing health crisis is having a devastating impact.

The story is similar in Africa, which has seen a mere 2 % of all the vaccine doses administered globally. The continent has been forced to rely on the troublesome COVAX system.

“We see in our federation people from member groups such as the Philippines or Togo not knowing when they will receive the vaccine and others in the UK or other countries who have already received the vaccine,” Cossar stated. “This great inequality of vaccines is incredibly unjust and that is why we are really committed as a federation to demanding a people’s vaccine [9] that is fairly and equitably distributed around the world.”

Friends of the Earth International demands [4] that the intellectual property rights waiver at the WTO is approved as soon as possible. “We know every day counts in this fight against Covid and every day that the EU and countries like Australia block this waiver would be costing lives,” said the co-coordinator of the Economic Justice and Resisting Neoliberalism program.

However, the activist explained that the waiver is just one part of a much broader just recovery plan from Covid needed. “In terms of the vaccine we need much greater international solidarity and government funding for an equitable and just global rollout,” he said. He explained that it is also necessary to “strengthen and protect human rights and democracy; to abandon the failed system” which has led to massive biodiversity loss, climate change and inequality, and that “governments need to pursue a transformative system change [10] agenda that would protect our planet and people living forward.”