Nursing unions around world call for UN action on Covid vaccine patents

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Photograph: Sumaya Hisham/Reuters

Bodies in 28 countries file appeal for waiver of intellectual property agreement and end to ‘grossly unjust’ distribution of jabs

Nursing unions in 28 countries have filed a formal appeal with the United Nations over the refusal of the UK, EU and others to temporarily waive patents for Covid vaccines, saying this has cost huge numbers of lives in developing nations.

The letter, sent on Monday on behalf of unions representing more than 2.5 million healthcare workers, said staff have witnessed at first hand the “staggering numbers of deaths and the immense suffering caused by political inaction”.

The refusal of some countries to budge on rules about intellectual property rights for vaccines had contributed to a “vaccine apartheid” in which richer nations had secured at least 7bn doses, while lower-income nations had about 300m, it argued.

Such a distribution was not only “grossly unjust”, the letter said, but the rampant transmission of Covid in developing nations also increased the risk of new variants emerging, such as Omicron, first identified this week in South Africa and which has prompted the UK and other nations to tighten travel restrictions and other rules.

South Africa, along with India, has been pressing the World Trade Organization (WTO) to help improve access to vaccines by waiving the multinational Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (Trips) agreement.

A temporary waiver on Trips provisions for Covid vaccines would, supporters say, allow them to be manufactured more widely, improving global distribution. On Friday, the US president, Joe Biden, called for WTO members to take this step following the emergence of the Omicron variant.

However, other countries have resisted. The letter to the UN – coordinated by the healthcare umbrella organisation Global Nurses United, and Progressive International, a collection of leftwing parties, movements and unions – cited what it called an “immediate threat to people’s right to health” from the EU, UK, Norway, Switzerland and Singapore.

It said that at least 115,000 medical and healthcare staff around the world have died as a result of Covid, and that while 40% on average have been fully vaccinated, in Africa and the western Pacific the figure is lower than one in 10.

“As frontline workers, we are well placed to testify against the violation of the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health because of the impact of a delayed Covid-19 Trips waiver,” the letter warned.

It was sent to Tlaleng Mofokeng, a South African doctor and health campaigner who is the UN’s special rapporteur on physical and mental health, and has the power to launch an investigation under the UN’s human rights council.

Mofokeng said the demand for a patent waiver “is one I share”. The role that health workers have played during the pandemic “provides them with moral authority” over the issue, she added.

In addition to South Africa and India, the call comes from unions representing nurses and healthcare staff in the US, Ireland, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Curacao, the Dominican Republic, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Israel, Italy, Kenya, Malawi, New Zealand, Paraguay, the Philippines, Portugal, Rwanda, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Uganda and Uruguay.

Deborah Burger, co-president of the National Nurses United union in the US, said the unequal distribution of vaccines and the resultant likelihood of new Covid variants “poses a dire risk to all people around the world”.

Shirley Marshal Díaz Morales, the vice-president of Brazil’s Federação Nacional dos Enfermeiros union, said: “It is way past time for the governments of the world to prioritise the health of the people over the profits of multinational corporations by approving the vaccine waiver.”

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