UN Human Rights Council’s Resolution on Access to Medicines and Vaccines Welcomed by Civil Society
COVID vaccine shipments to Africa began in February 2021, but subsequent shortfalls laid bare the acute access problems faced in many low-income countries.

Citizens and NGOs welcomed the United Nations Human Rights Council’s adoption of a much-debated draft resolution that calls on nations to ensure everyone has access to medicines and vaccines.

The resolution was adopted by consensus Friday shortly before the close of the HRC’s 50th session, sending what proponents called a “clear message” that access to medicines and diagnostics, including COVID-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments, is a human right.

Opponents such as the European Union, United Kingdom and United States, all home to major pharmaceutical companies, said the World Health Organization should be managing access.

“It is yet another rebuke to the rich countries and pharmaceutical companies that have chosen to uphold monopolies on life-saving medicines despite the human cost, which on one estimate is a preventable COVID-19 death every minute. That is a violation of human rights,” said a joint statement from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Knowledge Ecology International, and the People’s Vaccine Alliance.

The UN Human Rights Council meeting last week in its 50th session.

Though the resolution is non-binding and may have little practical impact, it could influence similar debate at the World Trade Organization over a proposal by India, South Africa and some low- to middle-income countries to relax intellectual property rules for manufacturing COVID treatments and tests. 

At its meeting of trade ministers in June, the WTO approved a resolution on a “limited” waiver of IP rules around COVID vaccine production. The current surfeit of vaccines, however, means the resolution would have little practical impact.

But the WTO is supposed to decide within the next six months whether to extend the waiver to COVID tests and treatments that are costlier or in short supply in many countries.

Those talks have already begun in the WTO’s Council on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), WTO’s Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said after an informal meeting with WTO heads of delegations in Geneva on Thursday.   

HRC resolution touches on wide range of topics

The final draft of the Human Rights Council resolution, co-sponsored by Argentina, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia and 10 other nations, includes ambitious calls to countries to ensure access to immunization as a “global public good.”

It calls for the “de-linkage” of the costs of new research and development from medicines and vaccines prices to ensure their wider availability, in keeping with the wishes of citizens and NGOs. Countries are asked to promote research, build capacity, and take “all measures necesary to strengthen regional and local production.”\

Developing nations that sought the resolution and rich nations that opposed it engaged in heated, mostly backroom debates over the precedents it could set even from a rhetorical standpoint.

After the United Kingdom said “securing” immunization as a “global public good” is not necessarily up to government, the final text was changed to refer to “access to immunization as a global public good.”

And wealthy countries insisted on adding a caveat to the final text that says all transfers of technology and know-how to developing countries must be “on mutually agreed terms” rather than compulsory.

‘Commitment, where possible, to voluntary licensing’

The 47-nation Human Rights Council’s language linking the promotion of research and innovation to a “commitment, where possible, to voluntary licensing in all agreements in which public funding has been invested in research and development” is significant because of the way COVID vaccines and treatments were marketed under exclusive patents after being financed with public funds.

But language calling for “a strong spirit of international solidarity” was changed to merely “a strong spirit of solidarity,” reportedly at the behest of the EU and the UK, according to an analysis by Knowledge Ecology International (KEI).

“There were deliberate attempts from some states to water down the language of this resolution, and the United Kingdom and the European Union initially pushed back on the principle of international solidarity,” the analysis said. “Yet the final resolution clearly states that health is a human right and that international cooperation must be the world’s guiding principle for this pandemic and any future health crisis.”

The analysis said governments must live up to their human rights obligations in several international human rights treaties, and that means “addressing the disproportionate impact of global health crises on marginalized groups, as well as fostering knowledge and technology transfer, and making full use of flexibilities in global intellectual property rules to adequately respond to and prepare for public health needs.”

Image Credits: Bicanski on Pixnio, GovernmentZA/Flickr, European Union .

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