Commodifying Life-Saving Medical Products Undermines Global Health Response
(New York) – Wealthy governments and pharmaceutical companies are undermining a rapid and equitable public health response to Covid-19 vaccines, therapeutic drugs, and tests, Human Rights Watch researchers said in a paper published ahead of a World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting this week. Human Rights Watch also released a video about the subject. Governments and companies should urgently share knowledge and technology to save lives, protect the right to health, and ensure everyone can benefit from scientific research, especially with the highly contagious Delta variant.
The paper, “COVID-19 Exposes Warped Global Health Power: The System Needs a Course Correction,” published on August 31, 2021 in the Business and Human Rights Journal, discusses how a handful of high-income countries that were lobbied by powerful pharmaceutical companies have stalled a proposal to temporarily waive global trade and intellectual property rules to expand access to lifesaving vaccines and other health care products. Drawing upon 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 Covid-19 vaccine development with public money failed to condition these funds on affordability and sharing technology, leaving companies to decide how, when, and where they will manufacture, distribute, and price vaccines, Human Rights Watch said. Instead of sharing knowledge and technology, some governments are redistributing an inadequate amount of vaccines to poorer countries while letting companies set prices.
“Waiting for the benevolence of wealthy governments and pharmaceutical companies has dealt a deadly blow to basic rights,” said Aruna Kashyap, associate business and human rights director at Human Rights Watch and a co-author of the paper. “It’s unconscionable that wealthy governments are reducing life-saving health care to a tradeable commodity and using their power at the WTO to make the right to health subservient to pharma and trade interests.”
Access to Covid-19 vaccines remains deeply unequal. Three-quarters of the more than 5 billion vaccine doses administered worldwide have gone to just 10 countries, according to the WHO. While some rich governments have begun distributing third “booster” shots, only two percent of Africa’s population is fully vaccinated. The director-general of the WHO has called for a moratorium on booster doses to enable vaccines to reach people who have yet to receive their first dose.
The pandemic has laid bare the dangers of having manufacturing capacity for life-saving vaccines concentrated in a few countries where governments have refused to prioritize and mandate intellectual property waivers and technology transfers for rapid diversified and global production. That has created deep inequities in access to the health products that can save lives.
Months-long debates at the WTO have left the WHO and public health authorities throughout the world in limbo. In May, the United States signaled that it would support negotiations on the text of the waiver proposal. But the European Commission, representing the European Union member states, Switzerland, and several other high-income governments have consistently stalled and blocked efforts to swiftly adopt the waiver. Negotiations resume in Geneva on September 14.
Meanwhile, shortages of vaccine supplies and inequitable vaccine distribution policies have led to vaccine inequity 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 over 100 governments, if adopted by the WTO, would signal that, in the context of the ongoing pandemic, providing life-saving health care comes first.
International law recognizes everyone’s right to benefit from scientific progress. Since the onset of the pandemic, United Nations human rights entities have repeatedly reiterated that states have an obligation to share the benefits of scientific research. Governments have obligations concerning international cooperation. They should refrain from actions that interfere, directly or indirectly, with the enjoyment of rights in other countries. This obligation extends to their actions in intergovernmental organizations like the WTO.
Most governments have also sidelined WHO technology sharing pools. The WHO first created a voluntary technology sharing pool for Covid-19 medical products in May 2020 that would have allowed the sharing of vaccine technology to promote faster production and distribution. However, only 41 governments have endorsed the pool. Most others including the US, UK, Germany, and many other EU member states and the European Commission have yet to signal their participation in the pool. None of these governments have used their influence or leverage to convince any of the pharmaceutical companies whose vaccines they have funded to join the technology pool.
The WTO is an intergovernmental organization that regulates and facilitates international trade between nations. Its promotion of trade and protection of intellectual property has historically taken priority over health, environment, or human wellbeing. This pattern has had lethal consequences during a pandemic by slowing a public response when at least 4.5 million lives have already been lost.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the system needs a long-overdue course correction so that the WHO is empowered, and not undermined, by the WTO,” said Margaret Wurth, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and a co-author of the paper. “Participating in WHO technology sharing platforms and temporarily waiving intellectual property rules are critical ways forward.”
States should not frustrate 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, such as by invoking intellectual property protections to slow vaccine distribution or production. In addition to violating their human rights obligations, obstructing a rapid health response is a huge setback to low- and middle-income countries’ ability to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
The pandemic has prompted discussions about an international pandemic treaty that will take place in the coming months. Any pandemic treaty should include human rights protections, including triggers for automatic intellectual property waivers and mandate greater transparency and accountability of global procurement efforts.
“We urgently need enforceable global health norms that de-commodify life-saving medical products and prioritize the health and safety of people instead of foot-dragging and equivocation,” said Kyle Knight, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and the third co-author of the paper. “A powerful minority of wealthy governments has cynically prioritized their own and their companies’ interests while global infections and deaths soar.”