Omicron shows why sharing COVID vaccines with low-income countries is essential

The World Health Organization’s statement that omicron is a ‘worrying variant’ is a stark reminder that highly unequal access to COVID-19 vaccines is a grave danger to the world’s population.

The pandemic has exposed the dangers of concentrating life-saving vaccine manufacturing capacity in a few countries where governments have refused to prioritize and enforce the sharing of intellectual property and technology for rapid, diverse and global production. . As scientists scramble to determine if omicron poses additional dangers compared to other variants, its specter reflects political failures as some rich country governments and pharmaceutical companies undermine timely and equitable access to vaccines, therapeutic drugs and COVID-19 tests.

Rich countries block an intellectual property waiver at the World Trade Organization and concentrate vaccine production in the United States and Europe. This has prolonged the devastating cycles of COVID-19 outbreaks, deaths, travel restrictions and lockdowns, allowing the virus to mutate and spread.

For more than a year, the governments of South Africa and India have led efforts at the WTO to promote more equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics by waiving certain provisions of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). The approval of a TRIPS waiver would temporarily suspend certain intellectual property and global trade rules for health products needed to respond to COVID-19.

However, some rich and powerful states like the European Union, the UK and Switzerland have repeatedly blocked a temporary waiver, preventing the large-scale manufacture and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines in low- and middle-income countries. The results is that, according to UN data, while nearly 65% ​​of people in high-income countries are vaccinated, only 8% in poor countries. According to the World Health Organization, there are every day six times more boosters administered globally than the first doses in low-income countries.

The waiver would allow countries to work with each other to increase production of vaccines and other health products without fear of trade retaliation. Negotiations on the waiver were scheduled to continue in late November and early December at the WTO ministerial conference, but the agency postponed the conference due to omicron’s concerns for traveling representatives. World leaders should continue to work for the early adoption of the waiver proposal.

Due to the failure of rich countries to share access to vaccines, COVID-19 continues to cause serious illnesses and deaths that vaccines could have prevented. As documented By Human Rights Watch and others, the social and economic consequences of the pandemic have been widespread and devastating, especially for health workers, marginalized populations, and people living in poverty.

US companies Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson quickly developed life-saving vaccines with substantial support from the US government; about $ 1 billion in public funds each for Modern and NOT A WORD for the research and development of a vaccine against COVID-19. The U.S. National Institutes of Health funded fundamental innovations that made Moderna and BioNTech-Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccines possible. But these companies did not share their technology with the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 technology access pool or mRNA technology transfer hub, limiting the ability of companies in other parts of the world to produce more vaccines for the global response.

Disparities in vaccine availability and access reflect a failure to ensure that international human rights standards guide the global strategy for a fair exit of this global public health emergency. Governments have a collective responsibility to take action to prevent threats to public health and ensure access to medical care for those in need, and to cooperate to share the benefits of science.

All governments should strive to adopt a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights. Until vaccines and therapeutics are distributed fairly, the end of the COVID-19 pandemic will be, as a coalition of nurses unions said last week, Nowhere in sight.

It is inconceivable that rich countries reduce vital health care to a tradable commodity and use their power at the WTO subjecting human health to the pharmaceutical industry and commercial interests. A powerful minority of governments have cynically prioritized the economic interests of their own businesses and those of their countries as global infections and deaths soar.

And as the number of cases increases everywhere – again – this is a reminder that no people or economy in a country can be fully protected against a deadly infectious disease until everyone is protected.

Adi Radhakrishnan is a researcher and Kyle Knight is a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. They wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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