Omicron: Nursing unions call for WTO to open COVID vaccine patents as variant spreads

The letter from nursing unions warned that vaccine inequality would lead to more COVID-19 variants emerging
The letter from nursing unions warned that vaccine inequality would lead to more COVID-19 variants emerging Copyright Denis Farrell/AP Photo
By Tom Bateman
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Nursing unions representing 2.5 million healthcare workers called on the UN to back a move that supporters say will make vaccines cheaper and easier to produce.


Nursing unions from 28 countries have called on the United Nations to support a temporary waiver on patents for COVID-19 vaccines, and warned of a "crisis of global vaccine apartheid" that could lead to more new variants like Omicron and Delta spreading around the world.

In a letter sent on Monday, the unions accused the European Union, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway and Singapore of "protecting the profits of big pharmaceutical companies at the expense of public health," by opposing the so-called TRIPS waiver backed by around 100 nations.

As of late September this year, 73 per cent of the world's COVID-19 vaccines had been given in just ten countries, the letter said, adding that rich countries had obtained 7 billion doses of the vaccines. That compares to just 300 million doses available to people in low-income nations.

The unions, which represent around 2.5 million healthcare workers worldwide, urged the UN's special rapporteur on physical and mental health, South African doctor Tlaleng Mokofeng, to take action on what it called "the crimes of the governments of some of the world's richest countries".

What waiver?

In October 2020, South Africa and India began to press the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to approve a waiver of parts of the multinational Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, in order to improve access to vaccines in poorer countries.

Supporters of the proposal at the WTO argue that a waiver would temporarily lift the patents on the world's COVID-19 vaccines, making them easier and cheaper to produce.

Martial Trezzini/AP
A WTO conference due to discuss the TRIPS waiver was postponed on Friday due to the Omicron outbreakMartial Trezzini/AP

Failure to back the measure would mean "the violation of the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health," the letter coordinated by organisations Global Nurses United and Progressive International alleged.

On average, only two fifths of health and care workers worldwide are fully vaccinated against the virus, the letter said. In Africa and the Western Pacific, that rate falls to fewer than one in 10.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between 80,000 and 180,000 healthcare workers may have died with COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

'No one is safe until everyone is safe'

In recent days, the spread of the Omicron variant - first detected in South Africa - has prompted some world leaders to express support for the proposal.

On Friday, US president Joe Biden said the variant showed why it was important to secure the waiver quickly.

"The news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations," Biden said in a statement.

On Saturday, Norway's foreign minister Anniken Huitfeldt suggested the country's new government would break with the previous administration's opposition to opening up vaccine patents.

"No one is safe until everyone is safe. Six percent of the population in African countries is vaccinated. The proportion of vaccinated must go up for everyone's sake. For their sake, but also for ours," she told Norway's Verdens Gang newspaper.

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