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Pressure grows for patent waiver amid 'Covid vaccine apartheid' - so what's Ireland's position?

A mock funeral will be held outside Leinster House today to protest the Government’s support for EU’s efforts to block the TRIPS waiver.

File photo of a container of Covid-19 vaccine
File photo of a container of Covid-19 vaccine
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

AS COUNTRIES AROUND the world introduce measures in response to the emergence of the Omicron variant, there have been renewed calls for wealthier countries to support a temporary waiver on patents for Covid-19 vaccines.

Ireland’s vaccination rollout is now well and truly focused on booster jabs, but many countries are still struggling to get access to first doses of the vaccine.

About 65% of people in high-income countries have had at least one vaccine dose, but just over 7% in low-income countries, according to figures from the United Nations.

In Ireland, for example, just over 91% of the eligible population over the age of 12 is fully vaccinated against the virus.

In a particularly stark statistic, almost 70% of adults in the European Union are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 but most healthcare workers in African countries are not.

Branding this imbalance a moral outrage, the World Health Organization (WHO) has urged wealthy countries to refrain from providing booster shots to the fully vaccinated until the most vulnerable everywhere have received their first jabs — but to no avail.

Nursing unions from 28 countries yesterday accused the EU, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway and Singapore – which all have opposed waiving intellectual property rights to date – of “protecting the profits of big pharmaceutical companies at the expense of public health”.

In October 2020, India and South Africa made a landmark proposal to temporarily waive several sections of the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) – an international legal agreement between all the member nations of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The WTO agreement enables members to waive elements of TRIPS in exceptional circumstances – such as a pandemic – in relation to pharmaceutical products and so-called “least-developed countries”.

The EU initially opposed the waiver but has since tabled a counter-proposal to use flexibilities in existing WTO rules.

The postponement – due to concerns about Omicron – of a World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting due to take place this week dealt another blow to efforts to introduce a temporary waiver of intellectual property rules for Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatment. Campaigners had hoped a breakthrough might happen at the conference.

The WTO last month said its member nations had again failed to agree to suspend intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines, with some countries doubting a deal could be reached unless certain delegations make “real compromises”.

The TRIPS waiver proposal has met with fierce opposition from pharmaceutical giants and their host countries, which insist patents are not the main roadblocks to scaling up production and warn that such a move could hamper innovation.

However, health experts have repeatedly stressed that allowing Covid-19 to spread unabated in some countries dramatically increases the chances that new, more dangerous variants could emerge, placing the entire world at risk.

Members of the People’s Vaccine Alliance Ireland group are due to stage a mock funeral outside Leinster House at 1pm today to protest the Ireland Government’s support for EU’s efforts to block the TRIPS waiver.

Minute-long silences will be observed to honour those across the world who have died from Covid-19 but might have been saved with timely provision of vaccines.

Could vaccine inequality lead to more variants?

The emergence last week of Omicron, a new variant first detected in southern Africa, has put such fears front and centre once again.

The WHO has warned that Omicron poses a “very high” risk globally, although it remains unclear if it is more contagious, dangerous or better at dodging vaccine protections than previous variants.

Nursing unions from 28 countries have called on the United Nations to support a temporary waiver on patents for Covid-19 vaccines. They warned that a “crisis of global vaccine apartheid” could lead to more new variants like Omicron and Delta spreading around the world.

In a letter sent on Monday, the unions accused the EU and other countries which oppose the TRIPS waiver of “protecting the profits of big pharmaceutical companies at the expense of public health”.

The unions, which represent around 2.5 million healthcare workers globally, urged the UN to take action on what it called “the crimes of the governments of some of the world’s richest countries”.

A section from the letter:

Screenshot 2021-11-30 12.24.13 Source: Global Nurses United

Also yesterday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said countries have taken “a splintered and disjointed approach” in their responses to the pandemic, which has become “a crisis of solidarity and sharing”.

“No one is safe until everyone is safe,” he noted.

US President Joe Biden made similar comments when he called on countries due to attend this week’s now cancelled WTO meeting to waive intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines.

In a statement issued on Friday, Biden said the discovery of the Omicron variant highlights that the pandemic will not end until all countries have equal access to vaccines.

“The news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations. This news today reiterates the importance of moving on this quickly,” Biden said.

Shortly after Biden released his statement, the WTO conference was cancelled at the last minute on Friday due to concerns over the Omicron variant. Leaders at the meeting were set to discuss the TRIPS waiver, among other issues.

What about COVAX?

Since the TRIPS Waiver was proposed last year, it has gained support from over 100 countries as well as many health experts and NGOS across the world. Supporters of the waiver argue that it would make Covid-19 vaccines and tests more accessible globally.

Gautam Menon, a physics and biology professor at Ashoka University in India, told AFP it is in the best interests of wealthy countries to ensure poorer nations also get jabs.

“It would be myopic to assume that just by vaccinating themselves they have gotten rid of the problem,” he said.

Many European politicians are quick to point to the EU’s involvement in COVAX – a worldwide initiative aimed at equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines – when asked about how the bloc is helping in terms of global vaccine access.

EU Member States have pledged to donate 300 million vaccine doses to low- and middle-income countries by the end of 2021 — both through COVAX and bilateral donations. However, less than a third of those have been delivered, with just a few weeks until the end of the year.

Figures obtained by German media outlet Deutsche Welle (DW) show that as of last Friday, 26 November, around 95 million donated doses had reached recipient countries.

Sources told DW that EU officials are laying part of the blame for slow deliveries firmly at the feet of vaccine makers.

“Most pharmaceutical companies don’t want to take care of the logistics themselves,” one EU diplomat, who asked not to be named, told DW.

“They think it’s up to the member state who bought the doses to send them on to the country that they want to donate them to. The problem is that these are complicated vaccines, with complicated cold chain delivery and storage conditions.”

In an emergency statement about the Omicron variant, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called on EU citizens to “take every opportunity to protect themselves through vaccination”, adding: “boosters provide even better protection”.

Dimitri Eynikel, EU adviser at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), told DW that the mass rollout of booster shots could prove problematic both from an epidemiological and equality perspective.

Even before the new variant was identified, he said, EU countries were showing “reluctance to donate” vaccines to countries in need.

“With the new waves coming now, with countries getting an interest in booster doses — they are delaying donations. This is, for us, not the right approach. The idea should not be to give more and more doses to the same people.”

What is Ireland’s stance? 

So, where does Ireland stand on the TRIPS waiver?

Speaking in the Seanad earlier this month, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said he agrees with the waiver. However, opposition TDs and senators have accused the Irish Government of saying one thing and doing another in this regard.

Donnelly told senators on 4 November: “I said that before and I reiterate it now. I do not think it will solve the problem, but even if it were to prove nothing more than symbolic, then it would be the right thing to do.

“Analysis has been done at the level of the European Commission concerning the full pathway required in this regard. These are extremely advanced manufacturing processes and similarly advanced global supply chains are also required, while the transportation and storage of the vaccines after manufacture is equally complex.

Therefore, a TRIPS Agreement waiver on its own would not solve the problem. A whole supply chain has to be put in place, and much of it is now being put in place.

Donnelly went on to say that he and his ministerial colleague Simon Coveney “ensure that Ireland has a strong voice on this issue at the EU table”.

He said: “What can Ireland do? One of the things that we can do, and which the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, and I regularly push, is to ensure that Ireland has a strong voice on this issue at the EU table.

“To its credit, the EU, by a large distance, has exported more vaccines than any other region in the world. As Members will be aware, Ireland has signed up to and has donated in-country vaccines to Uganda. We have also signed up to donate one million vaccine doses to COVAX.”

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Donnelly added: “We have much further to go in this regard and I will be bringing such recommendations to the Cabinet. We have the extraordinary luxury in this country of talking about booster vaccines for healthcare workers, when in some countries less than 2% of healthcare workers have had a first vaccination. It is something that we must be cognisant of when we talk about providing booster vaccines for more people here.”

Senator Alice-Mary Higgins is among the Irish politicians to consistently call for Ireland to back the TRIPS waiver.

Speaking in the Seanad earlier this month, she said it is “a great disgrace” to the European Union that the waiver “is still being blocked, almost only by Europe”.

Higgins stated:

Even the United States of America is now supporting it, together with 100 other countries. This is probably one of the greatest moral and, indeed, diplomatic failings that Europe will ever have made.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is among the NGOs calling for the temporary waiving of intellectual property rules for Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatment during the pandemic.

MSF recently hit out at the EU, UK, Norway and Switzerland for continuing “to stall constructive discussions on this proposal, which would … pave the way for many countries to increase production and supply of these lifesaving medical tools”.

As mentioned above, members of People’s Vaccine Alliance Ireland are due to stage a demonstration outside Leinster House this afternoon to protest the Government’s support for EU’s efforts to block the TRIPS waiver.

MSF Ireland, Oxfam Ireland and Amnesty International Ireland will be among the campaigners at the protest.

Representatives will hold a mock funeral cortege on Kildare Street in Dublin city at 1pm to highlight vaccine inequity and the number of people dying from Covid-19 globally.

Bells will be tolled every four seconds, signifying someone dying from Covid-19 every four seconds, as reported by The Economist.

Speaking in advance of the protest action, CEO of Oxfam Ireland Jim Clarken said: “We want the Irish Government to know that their actions are being watched.

“We will be sending a message that their actions will have deadly consequences if they continue to support the EU stance to continue to block the temporary waiving of intellectual property rights for life-saving products for those left behind.”

Contains reporting from © AFP 2021  

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Órla Ryan

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