World leaders say Never Again to vaccine inequity
Three years into pandemic, 200 world leaders say “never again” to the “scar” of vaccine inequality
Release date: 11 March 2023
• Ban Ki-Moon, Helen Clark, Joyce Banda, Joseph Stiglitz, and Winnie Byanyima join scores of leaders in open letter three years into the COVID-19 pandemic.
• Inequity of vaccine rollout resulted in one preventable COVID-19 death every 24 seconds in first year of vaccination alone.
• Governments must embed equity and human rights in pandemic preparedness and response after COVID-19 left “a scar on the world’s conscience”, leaders say.
More than 200 current and former world leaders, Nobel laureates, civil society organisations, faith leaders, and health experts have united to call on governments to “never again” allow “profiteering and nationalism” to come before the needs of humanity in a pandemic, in a letter coordinated by the People’s Vaccine Alliance to mark three years since the World Health Organization (WHO) first characterised COVID-19 as a pandemic.
President José Manuel Ramos-Horta of Timor-Leste, recipient of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, has signed the letter, alongside the former leaders of more than 40 countries, including Joyce Banda, former President of Malawi; José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, former Prime Minister of Spain; Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil; and Viktor and Kateryna Yushchenko, former President and First Lady of Ukraine.
They join Graça Machel, former First Lady of South Africa and Mozambique; Nobel laureates like Joseph E. Stiglitz and Sir Richard Roberts; faith leaders including the Archbishop of Cape Town and the Bishop of Salford, and former heads of institutions including the United Nations, World Bank, the UN General Assembly, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the OECD, UNICEF, and the International Labour Organization.
The leaders put forward a scathing analysis of the world’s pandemic response. COVID-19 countermeasures were developed and delivered with enormous public funding, signatories say. Therefore, they are “the people’s vaccines, the people’s tests, and the people’s treatments”. But instead of distributing COVID-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments based on need, pharmaceutical companies sold doses first to the “richest countries with the deepest pockets”.
This inequity led to one preventable death every 24 seconds in the first year of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout alone, according to analysis from the People’s Vaccine Alliance based on a study published in Nature. It is “a scar on the world’s conscience” that those lives were not saved, signatories say.
Signatories call on world leaders to pledge that “Never again will the lives of people in wealthy countries be prioritised over the lives of people in the Global South. Never again will publicly funded science be locked behind private monopolies. Never again will a company’s desire to make extraordinary profits come before the needs of humanity.”
They call on governments to embed “equity and human rights in pandemic preparedness and response” by treating publicly funded medical innovations as “global common goods… used to maximise the public benefit, not private profits”, and by embedding these principles in the Pandemic Accord that is currently under negotiation at the WHO.
This requires an automatic mechanism in any pandemic to remove the intellectual property barriers that prevent the sharing of scientific knowledge and technology, the signatories say. To address these barriers in the ongoing pandemic, they call on governments to act at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to ease patents on COVID-19 tests and treatments.
Governments should support and invest in public research, development, and manufacturing capacity, particularly in the Global South, the leaders say. They call on governments to provide “political, financial, and technical support” for the WHO’s mRNA Technology Transfer Hub project, which is sharing mRNA technology with producers in 15 low and middle-income countries.
The letter will be sent to all governments via their representatives in Geneva.
His Excellency José Ramos-Horta, President of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, said:
“In the COVID-19 pandemic, those of us in low and middle-income countries were pushed to the back of the line for vaccines and denied access to the benefits of new technologies. Three years on, we must say ‘never again’ to this injustice that has undermined the safety of people in every country. Steps that we take today can hasten global access to vaccines, medicines, and tests in the next pandemic, with regional hubs researching, developing, and manufacturing medical products for everyone, everywhere.”
Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, co-chair of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, and Member of Club de Madrid, said:
“Publicly funded science contributed a lot to the phenomenal success of COVID-19 vaccines. Yet, that public investment did not lead to vaccines being treated as global common goods. Rather, nationalism and profiteering around vaccines resulted in a catastrophic moral and public health failure which denied equitable access to all. We need to fix the glaring gaps in pandemic preparedness and response today, so that people in all countries can be protected when a pandemic threat emerges.”
Ban Ki-Moon, Eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations and Honorary Member of Club de Madrid, said:
“The great tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the failure of multilateralism and the absence of solidarity between the Global North and Global South. These past three years should act as a warning for future pandemics. We need a return to genuine cooperation between nations in our preparation and response to global threats. That requires a Pandemic Accord rooted in equity and human rights, which places the needs of humanity above the commercial interests of a handful of companies.”
Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS and co-chair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance, said:
“In the AIDS pandemic, pharmaceutical monopolies have resulted in an appalling number of unnecessary deaths– and it has been the same story with COVID-19. It was only the production of inexpensive generics in developing countries that made the first generation of HIV medicines available and affordable to people in the South. But governments still have not learned that lesson. Unless they break the monopolies that prevent people from accessing medical products, humanity will sleepwalk unprepared into the next pandemic.”
Notes for editors
The full letter and list of signatories is available here: http://bit.ly/3yregbL
People’s Vaccine activists are staging memorials and demonstrations across the world to mark three years since the WHO first characterised COVID-19 as a pandemic in Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Indonesia, Malawi, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, Palestine, Philippines, Qatar, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, the United Kingdom, Zambia, and across the United States – in La Puente California, Citrus Springs Florida, Boston Massachusetts and Alice and Houston Texas. More information and pictures will be updated here: https://peoplesvaccine.org/take-action/never-again-covid-monopolies/
An estimated 1.3 million fewer people would have died if COVID-19 vaccines were distributed equitably in 2021, according to a study published in Nature (Moore et al, 2022). This is equivalent to one preventable death every 24 seconds: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-022-02064-y
Pharmaceutical companies have made profits of $90 billion from COVID-19 vaccines, according to research from SOMO: https://www.somo.nl/big-pharma-raked-in-usd-90-billion-in-profits-with-covid-19-vaccines/
Governments have put an extraordinary amount of public funding into COVID-19 vaccines. The US government has invested $31.9 billion in mRNA, including hundreds of millions of dollars over the thirty years preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, according to research published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).
Governments have provided billions of dollars of funding for COVID-19 tests and therapeutics: https://www.policycuresresearch.org/covid-19-r-d-tracker/
The mRNA Technology Transfer Hub is backed by the WHO and Medicines Patent Pool. It will share mRNA technology with manufacturers in 15 low and middle-income countries: https://medicinespatentpool.org/news-publications-post/who-and-mpp-announce-names-of-15-manufactures-to-receive-training-from-mrna-technology-transfer-hub
Joe Karp-Sawey, Senior Media Advisor at The People’s Vaccine Alliance