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Amnesty Ireland chief: India's virus struggles make EU opposition to vaccine patent waivers 'an obscenity'

Standing up for the rights of pharma companies over human rights is “not tenable”, says O’Gorman.

Municipal workers in protective suits bury the body of a person who died due to Covid-19 in Gauhati, India,
Municipal workers in protective suits bury the body of a person who died due to Covid-19 in Gauhati, India,
Image: Anupam Nath

EUROPE’S OPPOSITION TO temporarily waiving intellectual property rules around Covid-19 vaccines is “untenable”, the head of Amnesty International Ireland has said.

A push led by South Africa and India and supported by 140 countries to get the World Trade Organization to suspend patents on Covid-19 vaccines has so far been blocked by the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States among others.

But in recent weeks, vaccine supply issues have contributed to a second wave of the virus, which has threatened to overwhelm the country’s health system.

India recorded 349,691 new cases and 2,767 deaths in a 24-hour period up to yesterday, the highest since the start of the pandemic. Case numbers hit daily records in each of the four days leading up to Sunday.

“It’s an obscenity at this stage,” Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty Ireland, told The Journal.

The blocking of a TRIPS waiver, by the EU, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the US and a range of other countries was always absolutely repugnant. With what’s happening in India, it just brings into really horrifying focus the impact the pandemic is having, and the failure to allow the scaling up of production of the vaccine in a way that allows us to vaccinate as many people as possible across the world.

The WTO will meet again this week to informally discuss whether or not to temporarily waive the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement during the pandemic.

Advocates say that temporarily waiving the TRIPS rules would clarify the legal uncertainties around licensing rules and allow lower-income countries to hurdle legal barriers to developing and producing their own Covid vaccines.

‘Rather vacuous’

Pharmaceutical companies and their lobbyists, on the other hand, believe that waiving their intellectual property rights now could stymy future vaccine innovation.

The European Commission has also said a temporary waiver will not solve production issues.

“We need to find measures that preserve the incentives to innovate and invest into the research related to health, while disseminating the technology and know-how through collaboration between vaccine developers and producers,” an EU spokesperson told research group Investigate Europe recently

The Irish government shares some of those concerns.

In response to a query from People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny last month, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly told the Dáil that he shared Kenny’s desire for “a global and just vaccination programme”.

“But I am concerned that, were we to [waive intellectual property rules] once, we could unintentionally undermine the companies’ ability or willingness to do what we need them to do in future,” Donnelly added.

O’Gorman and other human rights advocates have rubbished the innovation argument.

Last week, Andrew Stroehlein, European media director of Human Rights Watch said the claim is “galling”.

“Apart from bordering on extortion, it’s ahistorical. What incentivised them last time was our taxes. Our governments poured billions into developing vaccines,” Stroehlein said.

“They could be thus incentivised again in future, obviously.”

“They produced these things quickly because billions in public money has been pumped into developing these vaccines,” O’Gorman added.

So, the business model — if that’s the rather vacuous argument that some people might want to make around standing up for the status quo — was already disrupted when we saw billions of public money being pumped into fast-tracking development.

Even if this were not the case, O’Gorman said, “In a situation where you have a global pandemic, human rights and public health must take precedent over the profits and intellectual property rights and pharma companies.”

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Stephen Donnelly has been approached for comment.

Corporate lobbying

A report published recently by Corporate Observatory Europe, a Dutch-based campaign and research group, shed new light on Europe’s main pharmaceutical industry lobby and its behind-the-scenes efforts to fight the proposed easing of vaccine IP.

O’Gorman said he wasn’t familiar with the report but that it’s nothing new.

“I’m not remotely surprised by the fact that these very large, very wealthy corporations would be lobbying to protect their capacity to make very significant profits. That’s what they do.

“But, you know, international law is clear and human rights law is clear and people’s right to health and people’s right to life has to come before the intellectual property rights of pharmaceutical companies or indeed any other corporate interests. That’s inarguable at this stage.”

It’s also in the interest of wealthy countries to make sure that the vaccine roll-out in the Global South is successful and timely, he said.

“Even from a public health perspective, it’s now well accepted in the context of this pandemic that none of us is safe until all of us are safe.

“So ensuring that everybody globally has access to vaccines, in an effort to finally and properly get control of this pandemic and defeat this virus is necessary if anyone, anywhere is to be protected,” he argued.

“Standing over a situation where we’re seeing governments, including our own, defending the intellectual property rights of pharmaceutical companies ahead of the human rights of people who need access to medical care and vaccines, this is just not tenable it’s not acceptable.”  

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