(CN) — The head of the World Health Organization on Friday urgently called on richer nations to support a global waiver on intellectual property rights to speed up the production of coronavirus vaccines and help people in poorer countries get inoculated.
The call for the waiver by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, came shortly after the United Nations Security Council voted on Friday in favor of a resolution calling for the fair distribution of vaccines around the world.
Next week, the World Trade Organization is expected to debate triggering a provision of the so-called TRIPS Agreement to allow a waiver on intellectual property rights over vaccines and other medicines needed to combat the pandemic. TRIPS is the acronym for the Trade Related Aspects of the Intellectual Property Rights Agreement.
Supporters of a waiver say it would allow critical tools against Covid-19 – most importantly vaccines – to be produced quickly and affordably by manufacturers around the world.
India and South Africa have been leading the charge for a waiver at the WTO since last year. More than 100 nations are in favor of the waiver. But many richer countries and their trading partners, including the United States, the United Kingdom and European nations, have opposed the waiver, saying it is not necessary.
On Friday, Tedros called the waiver critical to ending the pandemic and he described opponents as making a serious miscalculation.
“If this provision [for a waiver] cannot be applied now, then when?” Tedros said at a news briefing at the WHO headquarters in Geneva.
He said that when the issue of a waiver is raised “we see lack of cooperation and even serious resistance.”
“To be honest, I can't understand this because this pandemic is unprecedented, the virus has taken the whole world hostage,” he said.
“If it cannot be done in unprecedented times, in times of crisis like this that happens in a hundred years maybe, when is it going to be used?” Tedros added. “I hope we will make the right choices.”
He welcomed the Security Council's support for vaccine equity, but he said world leaders need to go further and support a waiver. The WHO warns that unless vaccines are distributed globally, the world will be at risk of seeing the novel coronavirus continue to circulate and endanger every part of the world.
“We can't beat Covid without vaccine equity,” Tedros said. “So, sharing the vaccine which is being produced is actually the best way to bring lives and livelihoods back to normal.”
The WHO has set up an initiative called Covax to distribute vaccines globally. The initiative is supported by rich countries that donate funds and vaccines to it. On Wednesday, the Covax facility sent its first batch of vaccines to Ghana in Africa. Another batch arrived in the Ivory Coast on Friday.
Richer countries are producing and buying up the vast majority of vaccines and this is raising the specter that poorer regions will remain vulnerable to the virus for much longer. Besides the Covax initiative, Russia and China have also been supplying their vaccines to many developing countries.
Tedros said a waiver on intellectual property rights would help ramp up vaccine production.
Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO chief of emergencies, said rich nations were not living up to their pledges to help the world defeat the virus.
“I think we need to close the gap between the rhetoric and the reality,” he said about the question of the waiver. “I believe there's a healthy debate going on in many countries, and that's great. But there are some countries where there isn't even a debate. And I'm afraid, like the old adage says, that you can't have your cake and eat it too. I think some countries think that they can.”
The argument over the waiver comes at a moment of deep uncertainty about where the pandemic is heading. While new infections and deaths are dropping globally and more people in the hardest-hit nations are getting vaccinated, there are new reasons for concern as more contagious strains of the virus spread. More than 2.5 million deaths have been reported globally and more than 380,000 new infections are reported each day.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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