UN Human Rights Council to call for equitable access to vaccine

Carissa Etienne, Regional-Director for the WHO Pan American Health Organization (Source: Keystone)

Ecuador plans to call for the equitable and universal access to vaccines in the 46th session of the Human Rights Council, amidst the pandemic that is ravaging countries worldwide.

The Geneva-based Human Rights Council is set to take up the pandemic as a human rights issue during its 46th session - building upon debates in sister organisations, such as the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization.

Ecuador has announced that it will be proposing a new HRC resolution calling for equitable vaccine access in response to pandemics and other health emergencies, during the upcoming weeks of the session, which began on Monday.

The draft resolution, which Geneva Solutions was able to consult, states concerns about measures that have restricted exports of the vaccines, with the proposal requesting the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, to present a report to the council next year about the status of global access to vaccines.

The calls to consider vaccine access as a basic human right, come as  the vaccine divide between high income countries and low to middle income countries deepen even more.  In their statements at the HRC, Ecuador and other upper middle-income Latin American countries, including  Argentina, Costa Rica and Chile, emphasised  that the right to health also implies the right to get vaccinated against Covid-19, no matter where you live.

“We all have the right to access essential medicines, vaccines, and medical technologies to prevent and treat the spread of COVID-19. But not all countries have the same capacity for response,” said Felipe Carlos Solá, foreign minister of Argentina.

With over 275,000 confirmed cases and 15,500 deaths, Ecuador started the so-called “zero phase” of it’s national  vaccination plan in January, using the expensive and temperature sensitive Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to immunise priority groups.  The country expects to move forward with mass vaccinations in March, aiming to immunise 9 million people out of a population of 17 million. But meeting that goal depends on its ability to  access other, affordable, vaccines.

Pfizer & Covid in Latin America. Pfizer has been active in signing supply agreements in with nine Latin American and Caribbean countries: Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Uruguay.

Recently Pfizer was accused of “bullying” Latin American governments in Covid-19 vaccine negotiations, asking countries that sign deals for vaccines to also indemnify the firm against potential liability claims from people suffering adverse effects, backed by sovereign assets, such as embassy buildings and military bases, according to a new report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

At the same time, in sharp contrast to Moderna, the other firm producing mRNA vaccines, Pfizer joined the WHO co-sponsored global Covax facility to supply  up to 40 million doses in 2021 at a not-for-profit price. Covax aims to provide vaccines more equitably, worldwide.

At the announcement of the deal,  WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus,  praised Pfizer for its gesture, saying: “The urgent and equitable roll-out of vaccines is not just a moral imperative, it is also a strategic and economic imperative… this agreement with Pfizer and BioNTech will enable Covax to save lives, stabilise health systems and drive the global economic recovery.”

Ecuador and 36 other countries in the Americas are also participating in the Covax scheme,  which today began its first shipments of AstraZeneca vaccines, soon to be followed by those of Pfizer and other vaccines still in the pipeline. But Covax stockpiles are still painfully short in supply - due to vaccine hoarding by rich countries.

And so countries in the Americas and elsewhere are also forced to make up the gaps with bilateral deals. Among those,  Mexico and Colombia received their first batch of vaccine doses from the Chinese firm Sinovac on Saturday and Sunday - even though the Chinese vaccines have so far shown uneven results in clinical trials, and their vaccines have not been approved yet by either the WHO or an independent national authority - outside of China itself.

Country preparedness also critical. However vaccine purchases or donations are only the first step, warned  Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), WHO’s  regional office of the Americas region.  She warned countries that they needed to prepare their health systems to receive vaccines that will be arriving from the Covax facility. At this first stage PAHO countries are preparing for the arrival of 35.3 million doses, with Etienne warning: “Any small delays could set vaccinations back weeks, so countries must make vaccine readiness their number one priority.”

In addition, she and other PAHO officials urged countries in the Americas  to ensure that their vaccination plans include the many migrants and refugees that are on the move across the continent.

“As we start delivering Covax vaccines, and as we prepare for the steep scale-up ahead, we must be guided by our vision of fair and equitable access at every step of the way. We must overcome the structural barriers that prevent the most vulnerable from being immunized and we can only do that by working together,” Etienne said.

Along with Europe and India, the WHO Americas region, which includes both the United States, Canada and Mexico, as well as central and southern American states, and the Caribbean, has been one of those hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“With more than 45 million confirmed cases and more than one million deaths, countries and territories throughout the Americas, particularly the poorest among them, are experiencing an unprecedented health, economic and social crisis,” said Etienne.