Omicron and other new variants underline urgency to act
GENEVA (29 November 2021) – UN human rights experts* today urged States to act decisively to ensure that all people have equal and universal access to COVID-19 vaccines, particularly those in low-income countries who have largely been left out of the global response.
“The postponement of the World Trade Organization (WTO) 12th Ministerial Conference should not be a reason to delay progress already made: on the contrary, it confirms the urgent need to take collective action to address vaccine inequality,” said the experts. The ministerial conference, which had been due to be held from 30 November, has been postponed indefinitely after an outbreak of the particularly transmissible strain of COVID-19 Omicron led several governments to impose travel restrictions.
“States have a collective responsibility to use all available means to facilitate faster and more equal access to vaccines worldwide,” they said. This includes the introduction of a temporary waiver of relevant intellectual property rights under the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) to ensure that protection of vaccine patents does not become a barrier to the effective enjoyment of the right to health.
“States also have the individual responsibility to ensure the equal distribution of vaccines within and between countries by avoiding hoarding and stepping up distribution. Moreover, businesses have an independent responsibility to ensure that their actions do not result in adverse impacts on human rights”, said Surya Deva, Chairperson of the Working Group on business and human rights.
Addressing the health crisis equitably must take priority over profit maximization by corporations and vaccine hoarding by high-income countries, the experts said.
“Every person must have access to a COVID-19 vaccine that is safe, effective and timely,” the independent experts appointed by the Human Rights Council said in relation to WTO ongoing negotiations. “The priority should be to ensure that all people everywhere can enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and the highest attainable standard of health.”
Of nearly 8 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses administered globally to date, only 5.5 percent have gone to low-income countries, according to Our World in Data, a scientific publication which tracks pandemic-related data.
On 14 October, the experts sent 44 letters to the WTO, G7 and G20 States, the European Union and pharmaceutical companies urging equal and universal vaccine access. So far, only six responses have been received.
“We are deeply concerned that those who have suffered gravely – for example, people living in poverty and other marginalized individuals without access to social protection, water, essential health services or information about the pandemic – are those who are being left behind in regard to the global vaccination campaign,” said Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.
“Any other approach which disregards human rights will be counter-productive in our interconnected world, and will increase negative impacts and risks, including the emergence of new variants, such as Omicron, which may render existing vaccines less effective. No one is safe until all of us are safe,” the experts concluded.