COVID-19: Pharmaceutical companies and rich states put lives at risk as vaccine inequality soars

The actions of pharmaceutical companies and rich countries mean that billions of people at risk of COVID-19 are unlikely to receive a single dose of the life-saving vaccines this year, Amnesty International said as it launched a new global campaign calling for universal access to vaccines.

The campaign – A Fair Shot: Universal Access to COVID-19 Vaccines – calls for pharmaceutical companies to share their knowledge and technology to maximize the number of doses of vaccines available around the globe. It also calls on states to stop engaging in ‘vaccine nationalism’ and work together to ensure that those most at-risk of COVID-19 in all countries can access life-saving COVID-19 vaccines immediately.

“Who gets access to a COVID-19 vaccine, when, and at what price, are some of the most significant and contested questions facing our societies today. But the answers are being shaped by the interests of powerful states and companies,” said Stephen Cockburn, Head of Economic and Social Justice at Amnesty International

“So far they’ve created a dangerous situation with global inequalities in vaccine access spiraling out of control. A few rich countries are racing ahead, while the rest of the world struggles to get off the starting line. Everyone deserves a fair shot at a vaccine — when it comes to our right to health, there’s no place for discrimination.”

Rich countries have bought up over half of the world’s vaccine supply, even though they represent just 16 per cent of the world’s population. The same countries have administered over 60% of the world’s doses so far, while over 100 countries are yet to vaccinate a single person.

“Nobody should be denied access to health care, including vaccines, because of where they live, who they are, or what they earn. With enough pressure on the right people, we can ensure COVID-19 vaccination systems guarantee human rights,” said Stephen Cockburn.

Sharing knowledge and technology

Billions of taxpayers’ money has been spent to help companies like AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer BioNTech to develop and produce vaccines, yet these companies – and others – refuse to share their research, knowledge and technology. This means that other pharmaceutical companies cannot draw upon these advances in science to step up their own vaccine production, which would in turn increase supply, so they are accessible to countries with smaller budgets.

For example, in May 2020, the World Health Organization set up the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) so companies could pool data and knowledge, and then license production and technology transfer to other potential producers, with the aim of ensuring people everywhere could access vaccines quicker. Yet so far, not a single pharmaceutical company has joined C-TAP.

Governments must fulfill their human rights obligations and support a proposal to waive certain provisions of the TRIPS agreement, a global treaty governing intellectual property rights, which often restricts where, when and how medicines are produced. This waiver would lift the enforcement of patents and intellectual property protections that currently create obstacles for additional manufacturers to produce more COVID-19 vaccines. However, while it is supported by the vast majority of low- and middle-income countries, it is opposed by the wealthy ones.

As some states refuse to hold vaccine producers to account on their human rights responsibility to extend COVID-19 vaccine access to the maximum number of people, deep divides and inequalities between countries and communities have only become further exposed. And it’s those most at risk who are suffering as some countries and pharmaceutical companies continue to prioritize bilateral deals over ensuring that all people in every country have a fair shot at COVID-19 vaccines.

“As we mark the one-year anniversary of the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot stand by and watch this tragedy unfold when we have solutions on the table,” said Tamaryn Nelson, Amnesty International’s Health Advisor. “Amid governments’ race to vaccinate their own populations entirely first and the pharmaceutical industry’s tight grip on its patents, we’re forgetting that people’s lives are at stake. No one is safe until we’re all safe.”

It’s time for pharmaceutical companies and states to fulfil their human rights responsibilities and obligations. Amnesty International is campaigning for companies, including AstraZeneca, Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna, to share their knowledge and technology so that everyone in the world will have a fair shot at a vaccine. And states must step up by putting pressure on companies to do their part and work collectively to ensure those most at risk around the globe are vaccinated as soon as possible.

To find out more about how vaccine inequality is having devastating impacts on people across the globe, see here and here.

We all have the right to live happy and healthy lives. The vaccine crisis is an unprecedented human rights issue that has had an immediate impact on the future and our world. You can take action to end global vaccine inequality.

Learn more about how Amnesty will continue to challenge injustice through our coronavirus pandemic campaign.