“That Seanad Éireann:
notes with concern:
- the ongoing global impact of the Covid-19 pandemic;
- the lack of equitable access to vaccines for many countries in the global south, particularly African countries;
- that it is an injustice that only 5.88% of people living in Africa are fully vaccinated and only 27% of healthcare workers across Africa are fully vaccinated;
- that public health experts have consistently warned that failure to reach sufficiently high vaccination levels in every part of the planet would contribute to the emergence of new variants of concern such as the recently announced Omicron variant;
- that the European Commission has consistently blocked the introduction of a Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver on Covid-19 vaccines and technology at the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) TRIPS Council;
- that very large amounts of public money contributed to the discovery and development of Covid-19 vaccines;
- that the introduction of a TRIPS waiver could contribute to a significant increase in global manufacture of Covid-19 vaccines, including wider manufacture in the global south, and this would expedite global access to vaccination;
- that a TRIPS waiver was first proposed by South Africa and India in December, 2020, and has been supported by over 100 countries worldwide;
- the support of the United States of America for a TRIPS waiver, recently reaffirmed by President Biden;
- the resolution of the European Parliament in support of a TRIPS waiver in June 2021;
- the report published by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence in March 2021, which identified a TRIPS waiver as a key public health mechanism and noted its importance in response to the HIV-AIDS crisis;
- the strong calls from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNAIDS for a TRIPS waiver and global vaccine equity;
- the calls from international civil society organisations, including Médecins Sans Frontières, Oxfam, Amnesty International, Trócaire and Christian Aid, for a TRIPS waiver;
- that a formal appeal to the United Nations has been filed by nursing unions from 28 countries, representing 2.5 million nurses, stating that the failure of the European Union, United Kingdom and other countries to support a TRIPS waiver has cost huge numbers of lives in the global south;
- that less than one-third of vaccine doses pledged through the COVAX Initiative have been delivered;
- a global pandemic requires a global response;
- the longer we take to achieve global vaccination thresholds, the more lives will be lost and the greater the cumulative damage to societies and economies worldwide;
- a TRIPS waiver is an important part of an effective global public health response;
- the prolonged delays in the agreement of a TRIPS waiver at the WTO TRIPS Council has worsened the situation in respect of Covid-19 for global south countries;
- sustained blocking of a TRIPS waiver at the WTO TRIPS Council is not responsible or sustainable from a moral, diplomatic or public health perspective;
- none of us are safe from Covid-19 until everyone is safe;
calls on the Government to:
- immediately express public support for a TRIPS waiver on Covid-19 vaccines and technology, as a crucial step in supporting the scaling up of vaccine production in low and middle-income countries;
- urgently write to the President of the European Commission and the European Commissioner for Trade to express Ireland’s support for a TRIPS waiver and to call on the European Commission to end its blockage of the proposal at the next meeting of the WTO;
- strongly, publicly and consistently call on the European Commission, fellow members of the European Union and other countries across the world to support a TRIPS waiver on Covid-19 vaccines;
- sign up to the WHO Covid-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) and support its efforts to facilitate the open sharing of technology and know-how in relation to vaccine production and the treatment of persons infected with Covid-19.”
I am sharing time with Senator Ruane.
The Minister of State, Deputy English, will be aware I have been raising this issue for many months with many Ministers. I will begin with a sense of the timeline of what has got us to the point we are at today. This time last year, we were at a point, following a difficult year of the pandemic, of cautious optimism. We had seen the damage inflicted by the pandemic but also the importance of solidarity. We had heard much talk about how no one is safe until we are all safe and that the only way we could address this was by working together. We reflected that in communities and at national level and we were told it was being reflected at international level as well. Governments came through, and €93 billion was given in public funding to expedite the development of vaccines.
In the meantime, as part of that, the infrastructure was being put in place to ensure that once those vaccines had been developed, they could be shared rapidly and that they would reach those who most needed them. The COVAX initiative, we were told, would prioritise getting the most vulnerable 20% of every country in the world vaccinated before we then moved to reaching that threshold of vaccination that might help slow or halt the pandemic in every other country. The Covid technology access pool, C-TAP, had been set up to provide a clear, safe, planned mechanism that would allow companies to share intellectual property of different kinds relating to diagnosis, testing, treatment and vaccination against Covid-19.
All these elements were in place, yet just a month or two later, in January 2021, we found ourselves at a point where all the promises that had been made and the commitments given were already beginning to fray. The director-general of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned in the context of vaccine inequity that “the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries”. That was the warning and the appeal in January of this year. Since then, we have seen the failure to share intellectual property or to engage with the sharing of technology access pool. We have seen how vaccine manufacturers very much chose to prioritise profits over public health and did not engage in the voluntary licensing or sharing of patents, know-how or, crucially, the trade secrets and manufacturing information.
As for the really important COVAX initiative, to date only one third of the promised doses have been delivered. We are nowhere near the idea of 20% of vulnerable populations throughout the world having been vaccinated. In Africa, only 5.88% of people have received full vaccination, while the figure for their front-line health workers, who are meant to be a priority, is only 27%. The figures relating to the sharing of COVAX are extraordinarily poor. Not only that but, instead of doing what COVAX was designed for, namely, richer countries sponsoring the manufacture and direct delivery of vaccines to poorer countries, richer countries have bought up and hoarded vaccines and then donated them, just as they are on the brink of expiry, to systems that will struggle to distribute them in time. As has been highlighted by health experts and the World Health Organization, that is not what COVAX was designed for. It is not a charitable overflow. It was meant to be a core part of how we would tackle this together. Ireland has failed, as have other countries, in meeting the targets for COVAX vaccines.
I raised this last June. In The Lancet, the world's most respected medical journal, in that month an expert is quoted as saying: "[COVAX] was a beautiful idea, born out of solidarity. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen [because] rich countries behaved worse than anyone's worst nightmares." That is a very credible, respectable and careful medical journal giving us the verdict in June. Before that, throughout this process, there had been the call for a trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights, TRIPS, waiver, whereby we would waive the intellectual property rights, on an international level, to ensure poorer countries would be able to manufacture their own vaccines and we would have the maximum level of manufacturing as quickly as possible, given we know this is about getting ahead of the virus.
That proposal originally came in October 2020 from India and South Africa to the World Trade Organization TRIPS council and has since been backed by 100 countries, including the United States, which backed it in May of this year and again in November. President Biden directly appealed to the world's nations to rise to the challenge and address this issue quickly. The main blocks to the sharing of intellectual property have been the European Union, as represented by the European Commission, Switzerland and the UK, that is, a handful of countries set against 100 other countries, the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, other UN bodies and, crucially, civil society organisations of every kind.
We recently arrived at a point at which 2.5 million nurses had lodged an appeal with the UN over the human rights violation represented by delaying the sharing of intellectual property and vaccines and putting the global health front line at risk. As this has progressed, the deaths have mounted. The figures vary from 5 million, according to some accounts, to 17 million, according to The Economist, if the indirect deaths are counted. We should bear in mind that we are losing our global health front line.
There has been a consistent warning to the effect that if we do not take action, we risk the emergence of new variants. We talked about that back in March. It was acknowledged by the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, in March, yet Omicron has emerged, as was predicted and as was inevitable. We see the effects. We all know people who have caught Covid in the past month or week. It is spreading very rapidly across Europe, including in the UK and Ireland. Imagine the circumstances in a country in which only 5% of the population are vaccinated. In such a country, not only are more people catching the virus, but more are dying from it. In such a country, the health service staff are not vaccinated, there is no social welfare net, and there is no access to credit to keep businesses afloat. Imagine that, because that is the reality we are choosing to impose on the world. Imagine how you would feel if a solution was available that was not being shared. Last week African countries were meeting to talk about starting from scratch and inventing their own mRNA vaccines. They would have to start where we were two years ago, perhaps having trials in 2023. This is happening because are not sharing.
In my last minute or two, I want to address the countermotion because it does not stand up. I thank Dr. Aisling McMahon of Maynooth University, Dr. Luke McDonagh of the London School of Economics and many experts who have rebutted it. Let us be clear: there has been stalling and there have been disingenuous arguments, none of which stands up. The idea that there is insufficient manufacturing capacity was disproved last spring. It was disproved again this week when 100 specific factories were identified that could be producing within three months. The idea that incentives and innovation would be killed does not stand up. We heard that argument about sharing HIV drugs and it did not stand up. In fact, we are not using the world's scientists to innovate and build on what we have done. We are sending them back to the starting block that existed three years ago rather than building on the work of South African scientists so we will be ahead of the curve.
Let us be honest about the fact that it was the €93 billion in public money that drove the speedy development of the vaccine. The arguments about incentives do not stand up. The argument on TRIPS flexibilities that is now being proposed is extraordinarily disingenuous. It is patronising the public by putting the word "flexibilities" next to the word "TRIPS" so it will sound like a TRIPS waiver. It is not. In June of this year, when the World Trade Organization itself said we should start negotiating on the text and that concerns could be addressed in the text, the EU said that, instead of negotiating on the text, it wanted to make a counter-proposal. It wanted to stall discussion on the TRIPS waiver by putting a different proposal on the table. It was proposing an explanation of the TRIPS agreement based on the belief that, somehow, all the non-EU countries in the WTO did not understand, and also proposing to ask countries whether they knew the pandemic was a national emergency. The countries in question know that, and they know that there has been a failure to use the compulsory licensing measures successfully time and again because they have been blocked by countries. It appears to be a matter of a country-by-country solution whereby each vulnerable country must try to negotiate and achieve a patents licence, which may be involve hundreds of patents, regarding any one vaccine. The countries in question know that countries that have done this in the past faced huge reprisals, much as South Africa, when it tried this approach with HIV, had 14 different companies taking cases against it at one point. It has been sanctioned and pressured by other countries.
Also on compulsory licensing, we know about the idea of compulsory licensing for exports. In this regard, the one company that has tried to achieve this in respect of Covid-19, in Canada, has been resolutely blocked. Compulsory licensing for exports has been described as completely unworkable and has only ever been deployed once. By contrast, the TRIPS waiver does not mean the end of intellectual property everywhere; it means the end of the international blocks in respect of intellectual property. Each country, even if wealthy, could choose, if it so wished, to maintain its national intellectual property regime. If wealthy countries wished to continue to keep intellectual property regimes, they could, but what I propose would mean the poorer countries, the developing countries, would be able to take the steps they need to.
The arguments do not stand up. They are extraordinarily weak. It is disgraceful that we will enter February 2022 with yet more stalling by the European Commission. I ask the Irish Government to take a stand. Our stance is destroying our reputation, including diplomatically, and doing a disservice to our tradition on human rights.