Three years into pandemic, 200 world leaders say “never again” to the “scar” of vaccine inequality

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 the Lancet. 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.

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