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We are not safe until everyone is safe. Freeing the vaccine from corporate monopolies will help us reach global immunisation and is crucial for a Just Recovery from COVID-19.

This week, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) held special meetings to discuss a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines and medical supplies.  Thanks to pressure from a massive people-powered campaign, the US and New Zealand have now announced their support for the TRIPS waiver proposal, which is already backed by over 100 countries. Pressure is mounting on other wealthy states – notably the United Kingdom, European Union, Australia, Brazil, Japan, Norway and Switzerland – who are still blocking this lifesaving opportunity and choosing to protect the profits of pharmaceutical corporations.
It is time for rapid negotiations to implement the waiver and upscale  government funding to support a globally just and effective People’s Vaccine.

What would the TRIPS waiver mean for people?

The rollout of vaccines supported with public money and developed by pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca has begun, though at alarmingly unequal rates worldwide.

“Today high income countries are vaccinating 25 times faster than the lowest income countries,” explained intellectual property lawyer Sangeeta Shashikantin in an interview with Real World Radio.

Temporarily waiving property rights on the know-how, technology and licenses for vaccine production would mean that more countries and companies could produce them locally and at a lower price. This would make vaccines more quickly available and more affordable for everyone, especially people in the global South who currently face a long wait for vaccination and treatments, some until 2023.

The injustice and health risks posed by the current corporate-led vaccine rollout is not abstract numbers or figures to the Friends of the Earth International federation. It is having a real impact on activists and supporters all over the world and their struggle for environmental and social justice.

In Asia, India is facing a deadly second wave of Covid-19, with rapidly increasing deaths – currently over 300,000 cases daily – and a collapsing health systems. The threat of new strains is growing across the region, where loss of livelihoods and the ongoing health crisis is having a devastating impact.

 “I have not received the vaccine and don’t know when I will. The Philippines have vaccinated less than 1% of the population.The pandemic crisis is turning out to be a moral crisis. When you have rich nations able to vaccinate their population twice–thrice over and poor nations are only able to vaccinate at 1% or even less, protecting private profit in the face of tragedy at such a global scale is not a matter of due process or even negligence but culpability.”

Mai Taqueban, from LRC/Friends of the Earth Philippines.

Mae Taqueban holding a sign that reads I support the hashtag peoples vaccine

The story is similar in Africa, which has seen a mere 2% of all the vaccine doses administered globally. The continent has been forced to rely on the troublesome corporate-led COVAX system, which is currently failing to provide sufficient supplies.

“I have not been vaccinated and the vaccine rollout is slow in Togo. The vaccine needs to be shared equitably. The partnership between the global North and South must be one of cooperation, not colonialism. We say no to the Vaccine Apartheid! Freeing the vaccine will help global immunisation. We are not safe until everyone is safe.”

Kwami Kpondzo, from Friends of the Earth Togo.

Kwami Kpondzo holding a sign which reads hashtag free the vaccine

Many people across Europe have already received the vaccine, as the European Union and United Kingdom bought up huge swathes of doses early on. Whilst many people in Africa, Asia and Latin America will have to wait until 2023 to get their first injection, others in the UK could get their third by the end of 2021. This stark contrast highlights the current lack of fair access and equitable allocation that many are calling for, including the World Health Organization (WHO).

“I was fortunate enough to receive my first dose of the Astra Zeneca vaccine on 19 April. I will receive my second dose on 6 July. It is disgraceful that rich countries like the UK are blocking a People’s Vaccine. Covid-19 is causing a humanitarian catastrophe around the world and it is global South countries that are currently being hit hardest, and are most at risk from future waves, as the global North hoards vaccines and prioritises their own citizens. We have these amazing tools in the form of vaccines that can save lives and bring this pandemic to an end, and it is utterly wrong and unjust that some countries are fighting to prevent them being used freely.”

Sara Shaw, climate justice and energy program coordinator, based in the UK.

Sara Shaw holding a sign that reads hashtag free the vaccine

Although much of the research and development (R&D) for coronavirus-related treatments has been financed by public money, the pharmaceutical companies that hold property rights over these treatments are now able to charge high prices. Pfizer, for example, is selling its Covid-19 vaccine candidate for around $39 for two doses, representing an 80% profit margin.

The wealthiest countries who can afford such prices are typically the same ones blocking the waiver at the WTO, and not surprisingly where many transnational pharmaceutical companies are headquartered. Brazil, which in April accounted for over a quarter of global Covid-19 deaths, is one such country:

“The Covid situation in Brazil is a disaster. We have a fascist government that has failed us on the pandemic. People are dying everyday. Health and other human rights must take precedence over the profits of transnational pharmaceutical corporations. That is why we fight for rules for corporations and rights for people. The WTO intellectual property rights waiver can ensure more vaccines for our people and thus fewer deaths globally.”

Letícia Paranhos Menna de Oliveira, Economic justice and resisting neoliberalism program coordinator, from Brazil.

Leticia wearing a mask holding a sign that reads I support the hashtag trips waiver to hashtag free the vaccine

Time for a Just Recovery

There is a growing and powerful movement of people worldwide demanding a #PeoplesVaccine: from protests at pharmaceutical corporations offices, to the support of hundreds of Nobel prize winners and a two million strong petition demanding change.

The TRIPS waiver is just one essential part of a Just Recovery from Covid-19 and inter-connected, systemic crises. As well as the People’s Vaccine, any treatment for COVID-19 must be made available to all under the same conditions, without patents or other Intellectual Property Rights. The primacy of human rights and peoples’ rights over trade and investment agreements must be enshrined in international law, and governments must tackle the root causes of these crises, by pursuing a transformative system change agenda. This is the time to prioritise the sustainability of life, peoples’ rights, and the protection of livelihoods and the planet.