The World Health Organization’s declaration that omicron is a “Variant of Concern” delivers another stark reminder that severely unequal access to COVID-19 vaccines poses grave danger to the world’s population.
The pandemic has laid bare the dangers of having manufacturing capacity for life-saving vaccines concentrated in a few countries where governments have refused to prioritize and mandate sharing intellectual property and technology for rapid diversified and global production. As scientists scramble to determine if omicron introduces additional dangers over other variants, its specter reflects policy failures as some wealthy-country governments and pharmaceutical companies are undermining rapid and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutic drugs and tests.
Wealthy countries have been blocking an intellectual property waiver at the World Trade Organization and concentrating vaccine production in the U.S. and Europe. This has prolonged devastating cycles of COVID-19 surges, deaths, travel restrictions and lockdowns, allowing the virus to mutate and spread.
For over a year, the governments of South Africa and India have led efforts at the WTO to promote more equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics by waiving some provisions of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). The approval of a TRIPS waiver would temporarily suspend certain intellectual property and global trade rules for health products needed for the COVID-19 response.
However, some wealthy and powerful states such as the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland have repeatedly blocked a temporary waiver, inhibiting the widespread manufacturing and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines to low- and middle-income countries. The result is that, according to UN data, while nearly 65% of the people in high-income countries are vaccinated, just 8% in poor countries are. According to the World Health Organization, every day there are six times more boosters being administered globally than first doses in low-income countries.
The waiver would enable countries to collaborate with one another to scale-up production of vaccines and other health products without fearing trade-based retaliation. Negotiations on the waiver were slated to continue in late November and early December at the WTO ministerial conference, but the agency postponed the conference because of omicron concerns for traveling representatives. World leaders should continue working for swift adoption of the waiver proposal.
As a result of the failure of wealthy nations to share access to vaccines, COVID-19 is continuing to cause severe illness and death that vaccines could have prevented. As documented by Human Rights Watch and others, the social and economic consequences of the pandemic have been widespread and devastating, particularly for health care workers, marginalized populations, and people living in poverty.
The U.S.-based companies Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson quickly developed lifesaving vaccines with substantial support from the U.S. government; approximately $1 billion in public funds each to Moderna and J&J for COVID-19 vaccine research and development. The U.S. National Institutes of Health funded foundational innovations that made Moderna’s and BioNTech-Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccines possible. But these companies haven’t shared their technology with the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool or mRNA Technology Transfer Hub, limiting the ability of companies in other parts of the world to produce more vaccines for the global response.
The disparities in vaccine availability and access reflect a failure to ensure that international human rights standards guide the global strategy for an equitable exit from this global public health emergency. Governments have a collective responsibility to take steps to prevent threats to public health and ensure access to medical care for those who need it, and to cooperate to share the benefits of science.
All governments should work to enact a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights. Until vaccines and therapeutics are distributed equitably, the end of the COVID-19 pandemic will be, as a coalition of nursing unions said last week, nowhere in sight.
It is unconscionable that wealthy nations are reducing lifesaving health care to a tradeable commodity and using their power at the WTO to make human health subservient to pharmaceutical industry and trade interests. A powerful minority of governments has cynically prioritized their own and domestic companies’ economic interests while global infections and deaths soar.
And as case counts spike everywhere — again — it’s a reminder that no country’s people or economy can be fully protected from a deadly infectious disease until all people are protected.