Experts send pharma companies, States, EU and WTO letters calling for urgent action on COVID-19 vaccines

Letters published on Tuesday, 19 October 2021, and available now on Special Procedures database.

Background:

On 14 October 2021, six UN independent experts sent a total of 44 letters to G7 and G20 States, the European Union, and the World Trade Organization, as well as pharmaceutical companies that are either already producing or are preparing for producing COVID-19 vaccines and their home States. The letters call for urgent collective action to achieve equal and universal access to COVID-19 vaccines.

  • The letters were signed by: the Chair of the Working Group on business and human rights, Mr Surya Deva; the Special Rapporteur on the Right to physical and mental health, Ms Tlaleng Mofokeng; the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Mr Olivier De Schutter; the Special Rapporteur on the right to development, Mr Saad Alfarargi; the Independent Expert on international order, Mr Livingstone Sewanyana; and the Independent Expert on human rights and international solidarity, Mr Obiora C. Okafor.
  • The communications were issued as “Other Letters” and as such were made available to the public 48 hours after issuance in the UN Special Procedures communications database. The letter to the World Trade Organization and the remaining 43 letters are available here. Please click on “More details” under “Summary” for additional information on each letter.

Key messages

  • UN experts call for immediate collective action to ensure equal and universal access to COVID-19 vaccines.
  • Under international human rights law, everyone is entitled to have access without discrimination to a COVID-19 vaccine that is safe, effective and timely, ensuring all can enjoy the benefits of scientific progress necessary for the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health.
  • As of 27 September 2021, 44.5 percent of the world population had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, but only 2.2 percent of those people were in low-income countries. Most people in the poorest countries will need to wait another two years before they are vaccinated against COVID-19. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently announced that even though more than 5 billion vaccines have by now been administered worldwide, progress has been highly uneven: almost 75 percent of those doses have been administered in just 10 countries.
  • Governments, international organizations, companies, and civil society have undertaken important efforts to ensure equitable, affordable, fair, safe, timely, and universal access to COVID-19 vaccines. However, more is required, including through synergies between the public and private sectors and multilateral efforts, to enhance timely, global and equitable access to safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccines.
  • States have a collective responsibility to use all available means to facilitate faster access to vaccines, including by introducing a temporary waiver of relevant intellectual property rights under the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement), to ensure that protection of patents concerning the vaccines does not become a barrier to the effective enjoyment of the right to health.
  • States also have the individual responsibility to ensure the equal distribution of vaccines within and between countries by avoiding hoarding of vaccines and contributing to a better coordination of vaccine distribution.
  • The private sector has its own responsibility to identify, prevent and remediate adverse impacts of their activities on human rights by conducting human rights due diligence. Companies’ decisions regarding pricing and distribution must consider the adverse impacts such decisions will have on access to vaccines, particularly for low-income and marginalized individuals. Full transparency of contracts on vaccine development, procurement and provision is crucial in this respect, as well as a thorough human rights impact assessment of all vaccine related company activities.
  • The letters respond primarily to information received by the experts concerning the unequal access to COVID-19 vaccines. They also address unequal access to medicines, health technologies, diagnostics, and health therapies within and between countries which affect negatively several human rights, particularly of individuals and people living in low- and middle-income countries. Such unequal access exacerbates inequality and discrimination and impedes the realization of a democratic and equitable international order.

For media requests, please contact Jeremy Laurence (+ 41 79 444 7578 / jeremy.laurence@un.org) or Kinga Dery (consultant.dery@un.org).