Human Rights Watch sounds alarm over “vaccine nationalism” for COVID-19 pandemic

November 2, 2020: A new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) – Whoever Finds the Vaccine Must Share It - shows the grave danger of failure to provide COVID-19 vaccines universally and fairly, as the global community witnesses a third wave of the pandemic in the northern winter.

The report was written in October 2020, as India and South Africa were proposing that some provisions of the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) be waived, to allow all countries globally to collaborate with one another, without running into the restrictions governing 20-year patents on medicines for pharmaceutical companies . That call was postponed by a group of rich countries, including Australia, and further discussion delayed until January 2021.

In September 2020, Oxfam International analysed available information on deals made for five of the nine vaccine candidates that were in the final phase (“phase 3”) of clinical trials at that time. They estimated that 51 per cent of the doses were reserved for high-income countries including Australia, Hong Kong & Macau, Israel, Japan, Switzerland, the UK, the US, and the European Union, even though they represent only 13 percent of the world’s population.

The Third World Network has shown through its “VaxMap” that the expertise to manufacture vaccines is limited and highly skewed toward rich countries. Large parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America do not have any significant manufacturing capacity and will likely depend on imports.

The HRW report argues that open and non-exclusive licensing would unleash the potential of scientific research that uses public money to maximize public benefit, preventing any one company from holding or controlling access to the knowledge required to manufacture vaccines.

Governments should use their regulatory powers to require companies and other entities to share this knowledge, including through open and non-exclusive licensing, to avert a scenario that could allow drug companies to decide who gets a vaccine and when.

The HRW report recommends that governments ensure transparent and affordable access to vaccines for all by:

  • Supporting the Indian and South African proposals to waive some WTO rules to remove restrictions to access for low income countries
  • supporting and implement the WHO Technology Access Pool to share knowledge about vaccines and cooperate to expand manufacturing capacity and distribution to low income countries
  • not supporting deals with pharmaceutical companies that undermine equitable access to vaccines based on public health need.