Patent waivers will save millions of lives, governments must act now

May 20, 2021

Credit: Hindustan Times, Getty Images

The world’s transport unions today have demanded that governments across the world support waiving intellectual property rights at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to fight Covid-19.

With devastating waves of the disease tearing their way through the heart of countries around the globe – most notably India – governments are being urged to support India and South Africa’s proposal to the WTO.

The proposal calls for emergency waivers on intellectual property rights under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) specifically related to “prevention, containment and treatment” of the Covid-19 virus. Resistance from a few powerful countries and blocs is blocking this proposal.

The only way to eliminate Covid-19 is to do it globally and simultaneously. To do this we must remove all barriers to the production, distribution and access to vaccines, treatments and diagnostics.

Despite promising signs of recovery in high income countries, where in some cases one in two people have received a Covid-19 vaccine the pandemic is continuing its path of destruction through the global south. More deadly and more transmissible variants of Covid-19 are devastating India and Brazil, and we are now seeing cases surge in Thailand, Yemen, Central African Republic, Iraq, Cameroon, Venezuela, Colombia and Pakistan where cases have increased by at least a fifth in the last month.

These devastating waves in the global south threaten the recovery everywhere. Despite travel restrictions and attempts to isolate strains, we continue to witness their emergence even in countries with large scale vaccination programmes. No one is safe until everyone is safe.

The World Health Organization has called out the “shocking imbalance in the distribution of vaccines”.

While one in two people in some high-income countries have received a vaccine, in low-income countries that figure staggeringly stands at one in more than 500. The US, UK and the EU have pre-purchased enough doses to vaccinate their populations more than twice over, and the latest analysis shows 87% of doses have been given in wealthier countries. At the same time, we are seeing either no vaccinations or less than 0.1% of people vaccinated in countries such as Tanzania, Chad, Libya and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The role that a small number of countries are playing in exacerbating vaccine inequality by blocking the TRIPS waiver and universal access to Covid-19 vaccines, treatments and equipment, has no place in a civilised world.

Corporate profit cannot ever take precedence over human life.

“This is an emergency. The TRIPS Council is meeting on the 8th of June and we have three weeks to make sure they do the right thing. If the Council don’t agree to waivers millions will die,” said ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton.

“Our message to governments blocking waivers is simple: human life is more important than corporate profiteering. Only universal access to Covid-19 vaccines, treatments and equipment will prevent avoidable deaths.”

“The world will be watching the G20 Global Health Summit on Friday. They must do the right thing and support India and South Africa’s proposal to the WTO. Any alternate proposal will only slow down the process at a time when too many are getting sick and dying. All G20 nations must back the proposal. Our unions across the world will be fighting to make this happen,” said Cotton.

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