The Council of Global Union (CGU), representing over 200 million workers, has urged UK, Switzerland, Germany and the EU Commission to stop blocking efforts to waive vaccine patents. The council believes urgent action can be – and must be – taken this week to enable vaccine production in the Global South.
The demand from unions for a World Trade Organisation (WTO) waiver on intellectual property rights for Covid vaccines comes days after the Omicron variant emerged from countries which have been denied the right to produce their own vaccines. It also comes amidst renewed momentum and urgency from world leaders, with President Biden and the European Parliament – the only EU institution elected by citizens – reiterating their calls for intellectual property waivers on vaccines.
Governments were set to meet at the WTO Ministerial Conference in Geneva this week, now postponed because of risks posed by Omicron, to decide on whether to finally approve a waiver on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) – the world’s most comprehensive multilateral agreement on intellectual property – for Covid vaccines and supplies.
To secure the waiver, the TRIPS Council can be convened at any time to put forward a written proposal for the WTO General Council to formalize. Such a waiver was first proposed by South Africa and India in October 2020 and now has the backing of over 100 nations. A handful of wealthy countries which are home to major pharmaceutical companies including the UK, Switzerland and Germany have blocked the waiver.
Despite the postponement of the WTO, governments can still take immediate action to approve the waiver this week. WTO Director General Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala highlighted that negotiations must continue and delegates “should be fully empowered to close as many gaps as possible” as “this new variant reminds us once again of the urgency of the work we are charged with.”
Unions believe that if the UK, Switzerland and Germany stand down from their opposition to the TRIPS waiver, the lifting of patents, alongside undisclosed information protection and technology transfer, we can vaccinate the world. The CGU cites an Oxford University study which shows a pathway for the global community to establish regional centers capable of producing eight billion doses of vaccine by May 2022 to help end the pandemic.
Stephen Cotton, Chair of the CGU, and General Secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), said: “I speak directly to the Heads of State for the UK, Germany and Switzerland when I say this: your decisions are putting millions of lives and livelihoods at risk. The world is watching you, as panic and anxiety spread at the rise of a new variant that may have been prevented if you had acted sooner. The waiver can be agreed this week, you must act now or forever hold the preventable deaths of millions more on your conscience.”
Over 4 million people have died from Covid-19 since the waiver was first proposed. The Biden Administration, which has given away more doses than all other governments combined, made clear in a statement last week that the TRIPS waiver is an urgent and essential next step to end the pandemic.
Christy Hoffman, Vice Chair of the CGU and General Secretary of UNI Global Union, said: “The delayed WTO meeting is not an excuse for delayed action on a TRIPS waiver. There is enormous manufacturing capacity ready to produce the vaccines the world so desperately needs, and now is the time for political will to put that capacity into action. No one is safe from the virus until all of us are.”
While the majority of the populations in rich nations like the European Union and United States are vaccinated against COVID, only 4.5 per cent of people in low-income countries have received one dose
Rosa Pavanelli, General Secretary of Public Services International (PSI), added: “A handful of leaders are putting the interests of the pharma lobby ahead of the frontline workers they once applauded. This is an insult to their sacrifice. If the leaders of the UK, Switzerland and EU nations want to break the cycle of lockdowns and travel blocks, then they must immediately stop blocking the TRIPS waiver proposal so no barriers stand in the way of expanding vaccine production and quashing new variants.”