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Michelle Bachelet: Access to vaccines is a human right and must be a global public good

Demonstrators hold posters reading 'Don't Be Greedy', 'Share with the World' and 'SAVE' (Share American Vaccine with Everyone) during a protest asking for the US to share their vaccines with the world. (Credit: EPA/Etienne Laurent)

Vaccine inequity has dominated discussions on Covid-19, with many countries accused of ‘vaccine nationalism’, securing doses to inoculate only their populations. Making a human rights case, Geneva-based think tank Universal Rights Group held a side event against the backdrop of the 47th session of the Human Rights Council calling for vaccine equity to bring an end to the pandemic.

Over three billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines have been administered in 190 countries, yet there are stark differences in the pace of progress, with some nations inoculating large parts of their populations whilst others wait for first shipments to arrive.

On the sidelines of the 47th session of the HRC, the UN human rights body and several ambassadors representing various countries shared their thoughts on having a more equitable vaccine sharing scheme.

Speaking at the event, Michelle Bachelet UN High commissioner for Human Rights expressed that vaccines are an important way to end the pandemic, which has heightened and brought to light so many ills.

“Like a tsunami that follows an earthquake, the pandemic has generated a devastating socio-economic crisis, with long and far-reaching consequences,” she said.

“Rarely has the world faced such a cascade of setbacks and threats to virtually every right.”

Globally there have been over 183 million confirmed Covid-19 cases and almost 4 million deaths, whilst 3.25 billion vaccine doses have been administered.

Current estimates demonstrate that around 11 billion shots are needed to fully vaccinate 70 per cent of the world’s population against Covid-19 and at the current jab rate this could increase by six billion doses at the end of the year.

To avoid this Bachelet urged countries, particularly wealthy ones, to give access to vaccines and make them a global public good. Stressing the gravity of the issue, she explained that in May G7 countries, which are some of the wealthiest major industrial nations, were vaccinating populations of up to 4.6 million a day, whilst in low-middle income countries this figure was 63,000 per day.

As a consequence, those with the resources could fully inoculate their populations by early 2022, whilst it would take the ‘have-nots’ 50 years.

This stark reality has prompted promises from countries around the world. Last month for example, at the end of the G7 summit, the countries pledged to donate one billion Covid vaccine doses to low-middle income nations by the end of 2022, however it is yet to be determined how this will happen.

Read also: Covid vaccines: UK to donate surplus, urges G7 to follow suit

EU’s position.

These extra pledges are offset by restrictions on exports, where both the European Union and United States, for example, prohibit exports of some vaccines and its ingredients. This serves as a blow to an already limited vaccine supply, particularly following India’s surge in cases since March.

In February India was producing around six in ten of the world’s vaccine doses but halted exports in May,  including its supplies to the Covax facility, an initiative which is seen as the only ‘hope’ for equitable Covid-19 vaccines sharing. The scheme established by groups including the World Health Organization and GAVI, the vaccine alliance has plans to inoculate 20 per cent of each of the populations of the lowest income countries by the end of this year. As of 2 July, Covax had shipped only about 95 million vaccines.

Representing the EU, Thomas Wagner said the organisation has made universal access to Covid-19 vaccines a top political priority but when asked about temporary Covid-19 vaccines waivers, a proposal deemed to increase the supply of doses he said the “problem of vaccine access will not be solved by waiving intellectual property rights.”

This is in line with the Council of the EU’s approved conclusions on IP, stressing there is a need for increased global support for vaccines supply, particularly through the Covax, whilst also highlighting the importance of enabling exports from producing countries.

“We now urgently call upon all vaccine producing countries to allow export immediately, and to avoid measures that disrupt the supply chains,” Wagner said, speaking at the event.

For vaccine producing countries, waiving IP rights for Covid-19 vaccines would disincentivize manufacturers and stifle innovation, he said.

“We need to find measures of preserving incentives to innovate research related to health. Intellectual property is a key factor, providing a clear legal framework that enables collaboration that is much needed.

Temporarily waiving the World Trade Organizations’ Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for Covid-19 vaccines, a proposal put on the table by South Africa last year, will allow for more Covid-19 vaccine doses to be produced and at lower cost for less wealthier countries.

Read also: UN Human Rights Council adopts resolution for equitable, affordable access to Covid-19 vaccines

As part of the vaccines multilateralism, states were implored to ensure universal and equitable distribution to vaccines, including expanding production and eliminating “other obstacles to ensuring vaccines and treatments reach everyone, including licensing processes that are unduly complex and restrictive. I am glad to have seen steps towards the TRIPS waiver supported by Dr Tedros… This step will not solve everything, but we need to pursue all options,” said Bachelet.

In a press briefing WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that "we are in a very dangerous period of this pandemic,” in reference to the roaring Delta variant, which with such low vaccination coverage in many countries raises fears of the virus mutating further.

“Our only way out is to support countries in the equitable distribution of PPE (personal protective equipment), tests, treatments and vaccines. It is not rocket science, nor charity. It is smart public health and in everyone’s best interest,” he said on Tuesday.

Bachelet said: “The past 18 months have proved to us the unbearable costs of widespread inequalities and human rights gaps. But they have also demonstrated once and for all that human rights make us safer and stronger,”

“In truth, they are the only available vaccine against the parallel and unacceptable pandemic of inequalities and discrimination that COVID-19 has laid bare. Another vaccine we must ensure equitable access to everyone, everywhere.”