6 June 2024

We are now three years into the pandemic that has infected almost 760 million people around the world and killed almost 7 million, according to figures released by the World Health Organization (WHO) early in March 2023. For many of us, life has returned to normal and COVID-19 no longer preoccupies our minds.

In the developed world, Thailand included, vaccines have, for the most part, been readily available and any discussion has focused more on the “anti vaxxers” than on those who were never given the opportunity to receive any vaccine at all.

A recent press release by the People’s Vaccine Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 organizations, encompassing world leaders, Nobel laureates, civil society, faith leaders, and health experts, offers a sharp reminder of the curse of vaccine inequality, an inequity that led to one preventable COVID-19 death every 24 seconds in first year of vaccination alone.

The Alliance, along with more than 190 world leaders, has written an open letter calling on governments to “embed equity and human rights in pandemic preparedness and response after COVID-19 left “a scar on the world’s conscience” and to “never again allow profiteering and nationalism to come before the needs of humanity in a pandemic”.

The leaders, who include President José Manuel Ramos-Horta of Timor-Leste, recipient of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, Joyce Banda, former President of Malawi; José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, former Prime Minister of Spain; Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil; Viktor and Kateryna Yushchenko, former President and First Lady of Ukraine, have joined former First Lady of South Africa and Mozambique; Nobel laureates like Joseph E. Stiglitz and Sir Richard Roberts; faith leaders including the Archbishop of Cape Town and the Bishop of Salford, and former heads of institutions including the United Nations, World Bank, the UN General Assembly, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the OECD, UNICEF, and the International Labour Organization, as signatories to an open letter that puts forward a scathing analysis of the world’s pandemic response. COVID-19 countermeasures were developed and delivered with enormous public funding, they say. Therefore, they are “the people’s vaccines, the people’s tests, and the people’s treatments”. But instead of distributing COVID-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments based on need, pharmaceutical companies sold doses first to the “richest countries with the deepest pockets”.

These signatories call on world leaders to pledge that “Never again will the lives of people in wealthy countries be prioritised over the lives of people in the Global South. Never again will publicly funded science be locked behind private monopolies. Never again will a company’s desire to make extraordinary profits come before the needs of humanity.”

They call on governments to embed “equity and human rights in pandemic preparedness and response” by treating publicly funded medical innovations as “global common good and use to maximise the public benefit, not private profits”, and by embedding these principles in the Pandemic Accord that is currently under negotiation at the WHO.

This requires an automatic mechanism in any pandemic to remove the intellectual property barriers that prevent the sharing of scientific knowledge and technology, the signatories say. To address these barriers in the ongoing pandemic, they call on governments to act at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to ease patents on COVID-19 tests and treatments.

Governments should support and invest in public research, development, and manufacturing capacity, particularly in the Global South, the leaders say. They call on governments to provide “political, financial, and technical support” for the WHO’s mRNA Technology Transfer Hub project, which is sharing mRNA technology with producers in 15 low and middle-income countries.

The letter has been sent to all governments via their representatives in Geneva. (The full letter and list of signatories is available here: http://bit.ly/3yregbL)

By Veena Thoopkrajae