• Press Release

U.S. Health, Development & Human Rights Groups: WTO Fails Basic “Do No Further Harm” Test on Eve of Ministerial

June 10, 2022

Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images
On the eve of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Ministerial meeting, U.S. health, human rights, consumer and development organizations denounced the WTO for failing to lift intellectual property barriers that have blocked billions of people’s timely access to life-saving COVID-19 vaccines and treatments and the few wealthy countries doing Pharma’s bidding that have blocked a WTO COVID waiver cosponsored by 65 WTO member nations.

Today, only 14% of people in low-income countries are fully vaccinated. People in low- and middle- income countries have been left waiting for vaccines, and once supplies began, they have been sporadic and too often delivered too close to their expiration dates. In October of 2022, India and South Africa tabled a WTO proposal that would temporarily waive Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) to allow low- and middle- income countries to produce their own generic COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments.

Akshaya Kumar, Director of Crisis Advocacy, Human Rights Watch: “The pandemic and its devastating, cascading human rights impacts are not over. Governments can’t simply turn the page on this; they need to find a solution that is equitable and durable. In Geneva, as the ministerial conferences opens on Sunday, it’s been heartbreaking to learn of the green room tactics used to strong arm the Global South into a deal that frankly wouldn’t make anything better. Given their histories, governments like the US but also the UK, Switzerland and members of the EU have a special human rights responsibility to mitigate global inequities that further entrench the harmful legacy of colonial era racial hierarchies. Instead, they’re doing the opposite. At HRW, we’ve consistently urged governments to make decisions at the WTO that are aligned with their international human rights obligations. This deal doesn’t meet that standard. We believe governments have a duty to prevent unreasonably high costs and barriers to access to essential medicines, tests, treatments and vaccines. What’s being offered at the WTO is a poison pill. In our estimation, it would be better to walk away.”

Abby Maxman, President & CEO, Oxfam America: “In the 20 months since the WTO talks on the IP waiver started, nearly 30,000 people have died of COVID each day. And with each day that continues to pass, there’s more death, more suffering that is preventable. The donation model is not working. Voluntary measures from companies have delivered wild profits, but fail to address persistent vaccine inequity, new waves and new variants, unreliable and insufficient donations. It’s time for the U.S. to step up and deliver on the commitment to back the actual TRIPS waiver – one that could help ensure more equitable, sustainable supply and access to COVID-19 vaccines, treatments, and tests for all. It’s time to put people before profits…. We cheered when President Biden joined leaders of 100 other countries backing the proposal for vaccines. But there has been little progress since. The US has apparently not been leading the negotiations, and the UK, Switzerland, and the EU have actually blocked progress. Worse yet, countries are now asked to consider a dangerous and limited proposal which is not a waiver, could add more hurdles preventing poorer countries from producing vaccines, does not include tests or treatments, and is not global enough in scope. And without a waiver, the hoarding of vaccines by rich countries is likely to be repeated with the next generation of vaccines and treatments.”

Paul O’Brien, Executive Director, Amnesty International USA: When President Biden became president, he didn’t say he would put pharmaceutical profits at the center of his foreign policy, he said he would put human rights at the center of his foreign policy. What that means now is recognizing that this agreement is too little too late and continuing the negotiations until he has a truly human rights-based set of agreements that provides equal access to all COVID-19 health products for everyone who needs it so we can bring this pandemic to an end…. Because this agreement applies to vaccines, not to medicines and diagnostic treatments being available immediately, it’s too little too late. Because the proposal doesn’t address barriers to technology transfers that would allow countries to manufacture adequate vaccines, it is too little too late. Because it applies only to certain countries and it would leave out so many countries who are far behind in vaccination efforts and make more drastically affected groups within those countries disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, it is too little too late.”

Asia Russell, Executive Director, Health GAP: What we see today is an untenable, unacceptable text put forward by WTO leaders and endorsed by a minority of its most powerful members. We’re calling on the majority of WTO member states to do what’s difficult but necessary, which is to say enough is enough and walk away. Truly in an unprecedented pandemic no deal is much better, infinitely better than a bad deal. The stakes could not be higher for the majority of the world’s population, who endorse a true waiver of intellectual property rights provisions put forth by the WTO. We need them to lead in the absence of leadership from the Biden administration, from European members, from the UK and from the WTO itself, who appear more interested in a cynical game of spin and pleas for its own relevance rather than the very real life and death stakes communities across Sub-Saharan Africa and across the Global South have been facing….More than 20 years ago I participated in a WTO ministerial in Doha, Qatar, where because of international outcry over deadly inequities in access to AIDS treatment in Sub-Saharan Africa, Bush administration trade negotiators, over the petulant objections of Big Pharma actually put public health first. That resulted in a historic declaration. Unfortunately the WTO, President Biden and other minority high income countries are standing in the way of what should be a very reasonable outcome at the ministerial conference. The world is watching. We hope developing countries will once again lead and step away from this poison pill of a text.”

Robert Weissman, President, Public Citizen: “When historians look back at this period, there will be lots of judgment for rich countries and Big Pharma, but it may well be that the harshest judgement of all is reserved for the World Trade Organization which had to do the least to be impactful. In a once-in-a-hundred-year pandemic, killing millions of people, it could and was not able to waive its rules protecting Big Pharma monopolies. That was all that was being asked –– the ask wasn’t to give money or to ensure the technology transfer or to go into the field to save lives. It was asked to waive rules, written by Big Pharma to protect their monopolies, during a once-in-a-hundred year pandemic. And the institution has failed. I’m confident that we are not going to get the negative, counterproductive, so called “compromise”, waiver. I echo the calls for countries to walk away from it. I implore my government, the United States, to step forward and try to salvage a positive waiver. Assuming that does not happen, the U.S. government should not be let off the hook. The US government should immediately say that it won’t pressure countries not to try to access vaccines and testing and treatment technologies. The U.S. government should affirmatively assist with the transfer of technologies that it controls –– and that U.S based companies control –– so that countries, especially poor countries, are able to access treatment technologies, testing, and the capacity to manufacture vaccines.”

Lori Wallach, Rethink Trade: The WTO ministerial is a failure before it’s begun and the WTO’s limited legitimacy and relevance gutted by the reality that two years into the worst global health crisis in a generation, 15 million dead and millions more thrown down into poverty, the WTO is not even discussing getting its IP barriers out of the way of global access to necessary COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and tests. Early WTO action could have saved millions of lives and a waiver now still could save millions by stopping mass outbreaks that generate the more deadly new variants. Instead the world has only the shameful choice between a bad text pushed by WTO staff that won’t increase access to COVID vaccines, does not even cover treatments or texts, and would further limit existing WTO flexibilities for medicine access, and no text at all. Despite 65 countries cosponsored South Africa and India’s TRIPS waiver text and 100-plus supporting some WTO waiver and only the EU, UK and Swiss opposing on behalf of pharmaceutical corps, WTO negotiations were never launched on waiving WTO IP barriers. Instead, the WTO staff generated a rump text supported only by the EU that relies on existing WTO compulsory licensing procedures that have proved deeply inadequate during COVID. In the name of trying to save the WTO’s shambolic reputation rather than focusing on saving lives, WTO staff is now using severe bullying tactics to try to railroad a bad text through. We support the calls from civil society groups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America urging their governments to reject the text. Going forward, efforts can only escalate in scope and tactics if the legal WTO mechanism designed for just such an emergency is a fail. No one is giving up or going away because it’s not possible to do so with tens of millions of lives and livelihoods are at stake.”

Contact: Vanessa Parra, [email protected]