Pavanelli: "We must keep the TRIPS waiver discussion away from diplomacy games"

The Global Health Summit will take place in Rome on Friday, 21 May, to share lessons learned during the Covid-19 pandemic and develop and endorse a “Rome Declaration” of Principles.

Interview with Public Services International (PSI) General Secretary on the eve of the Global Health Summit in Rome.

  • The suspension of intellectual property rights for Covid-related vaccines is crucial to ensure global recovery from the pandemic.

  • Waiving intellectual property for vaccines is not enough and will be the first step towards a longer path.

  • To boost again the economy, massive public investments are needed, like it happened after the second world war.

  • The postponement of negotiations on the suspension of the intellectual property of vaccines would leave too much room to the vaccine diplomacy games.

  • We will only be able to overcome the pandemic together and we cannot afford vaccine nationalism.

  • Not to promote the interest of few, versus the global interest.

  • Three Kuwaiti trade unions affiliated with PSI.

  • I applaud the efforts of the three Kuwaiti trade unions in defending the right to health of all persons living in Kuwait.

  • Egypt lost 4,000 medical staff as of November 2020.

The Global Health Summit will take place in Rome on Friday, 21 May, to share lessons learned during the Covid-19 pandemic and develop and endorse a “Rome Declaration” of Principles.

The summit is organized by Italy, as Chair of the G20, in partnership with the European Commission, heads of international and regional institutions and representatives of global health bodies, notably the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Health Regulations (IHR) and commit efforts to raise funding to respond to the pandemic from donors around the world with the aim of distributing Covid-19 vaccines and medicines to poor countries.

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission President said that " We have to learn our lessons, and all countries need to better work together for improving global health security”. The discussions on the issue of the temporary global waiving of patents on Covid-19 vaccines, as "it could significantly increase the supply of the COVAX system for sharing vaccines with poor countries."

On the eve of the conference, Al Rai interviewed Rosa Pavanelli, PSI Secretary General. Public Services International is a Global Union Federation of more than 700 trade unions representing 30 million workers in 154 countries, it brings their voices to the UN, ILO, WHO and other regional and global organisations.

PSI has three affiliated Kuwaiti unions: Workers Union of Health Ministry in Kuwait, Syndicate of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour and Kuwait Municipality Labour Syndicate, and works towards temporary waive on Covid-19 vaccine and treatments patents.

What does Pavanelli say about all these issues?

US President Joe Biden has recently expressed his support for a global temporary waive on Covid-19 vaccine patents, before his administration confirms its participation in negotiations on the provisions in WTO TRIPS Council can this be considered that we are close to achieving the TRIPS waiver?

Rosa Pavanelli - PSI, in addition to several States and civil society organizations, welcomes the announcement by the Biden administration of support for a suspension of intellectual property rights for Covid-related vaccines. Such a decision from the US, that have always been the most determined country to protect the intellectual property, shows the urgency to take this decision in order to ensure the global recovery from the pandemic. It is appalling that the EU, and Germany particularly, are standing to defend their Corporates interests rather than people interest. Nevertheless, a vaccines waiver is not enough. Both in terms of controlling the pandemic as well as a moral argument of leaving the developing world without the necessary tools to mitigate the impacts on their population, as long as it does not affect populations in the developed world. Since October 2020, PSI has been demanding for rich countries to agree to the TRIPS waiver and share the vaccine, and other health products, such a diagnostics, PPE, and upcoming medicines. It’s time for us to urge the EU, UK, Switzerland, Australia, Japan, Brazil & Norway to follow suit. Therefore, this is just the first step towards a longer path.

Therefore, you acknowledge that a temporary waive on Covid-19 vaccine and treatments patents is not enough to accelerate production and contain the pandemic globally, what will be enough, and what are the direct implications on workers from the perspective of a fast economic recovery and thus for the magnitude of the unemployment rates caused by this pandemic globally?

As I said this not enough, we need a strong waiver that is not only about vaccines, but also about up-coming medicines, a strong waiver that will create pathways for generic versions of existing vaccines to be produced, a strong waiver that lasts for as long as the pandemic lasts, a strong waiver that is practical to use for countries that decide to do so. Unfortunately, we have seen the direct implications on workers; over 17,000 health workers have died from Covid-19, largely underestimated as many countries do not have officials figures, showing urgent need for rapid vaccine rollout;

This means one health worker dying every 30 minutes worldwide. Not to mention the efforts made by those who has been working during this pandemic under difficult conditions, to keep the services running. I am thinking at the workers from the essential services such as transports, water, electricity, waste management etc.

Regarding the huge unemployment rates caused by this pandemic globally, I believe that to boost again the economy, massive public investments are needed, like it happened after the second world war. If we say that this the most serious crisis since the 1945, let’s look at what the European countries did to rebuild their economies in the 50ies. Moreover, according to the 2016 “5 Year Plan” of the UN, endorsed by the ILO, WHO and OECD, 18 million workers are needed in the health sector to counter the dramatic shortage of health professionals. Similarly, according to UNESCO there is a global shortage of millions of teachers. Implementing these plans would not only contribute to reduce unemployment, but also to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

WTO President Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala welcomed announcement of the American endorsement of the proposal that India and South Africa stand behind, with a lack of enthusiasm from the EU while Berlin warned that "intellectual property protection is the source of innovation and should remain so in the future" ... What is the pave to weigh the right to health for all with intellectual property rights and are you as a union, for example, are not automatically considered to be in the position of "adversary" to companies?

This is good news, however WTO should speed up the negotiations rather than taking a long summer break that will delay urgent decisions. It would leave to much room to the vaccine diplomacy games and it would be very detrimental if the negotiations get delayed until the WTO ministerial council of November as it would then be enmeshed into trade-off politics. Developing countries would get harmed twisted to sign on other agreements against passing this one through. We cannot afford of wasting more time, time costs lives, I hope that this is clear for those who are accountable to make these decisions.

There are those who consider that the issue of patents is not the limiting factor in the production and supply of vaccines and that this is an "easy solution to a complex problem", and that such a thing would prevent costly research... Could not the provision of donations in favor of poor countries be an acceptable alternative according to some views?

Let me be very clear on that; we have been hearing all kinds of arguments against the patents by those that, from one side have taken public funds and therefore money from the citizens to develop the research, and then they have built fortunes with the commercialization of the result of the research which are the drugs. Big Pharma argues that removing waivers will dampen the motivation for innovation, but surprise, surprise, the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine research, for example, was 97% publicly funded with money from taxpayers.

A finding that makes this even more scandalous is the fact that the total paid by AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson in dividends and stock buybacks to their shareholders in the past 12 months, a total sum of $26 billion, would have been enough to vaccinate 1,3 billion people, equal to the population of Africa. At the same time, the founder of BioNTech, Ugur Sahin, is now worth $5.9 billion and Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel $5.2 billion. This is a clear example of the interest of few, versus the global interest. I believe that it is clear for everyone that we can come through the pandemic only together, we cannot afford vaccine nationalism and that once again, the voice of those who represent few people, overcomes the voice of billions of people.

While a spokesperson for the World Health Organization (WHO) welcomes this initiative to waive Covid-19 vaccines patent as "it could significantly increase the supply of the COVAX vaccine-sharing system to poor countries," does this pose a problem in terms of ensuring the safety and efficacy of the vaccines? Are the sectors concerned with this issue worldwide capable of providing these conditions, even if within narrow limits?

Safety and efficacy of the vaccines are ensured by strict international protocols implemented by national and international agencies. We have the capacity to produce “safety and efficacy vaccines” almost whatever is needed. India alone has the capacity to produce 3 billion doses. In the past some doubts have been raised about the capacity of South Africa to produce antiretroviral drugs for HIV patients, today we know that they were wrong.

You also call for financial policies reform, what can this provide in conjunction with waving vaccines’ patents?

For decades we have been told that there simply isn’t enough money available to properly fund our public services. Austerity policies have given us privatisation, cuts to education, health and public housing, the introduction of user pays and then rising service charges. And we’ve seen wage freezes for essential frontline staff. But recently we’ve also seen a wave of other stories – the LuxLeaks, the HSBC files, the Panama Papers - which paint a very different picture about this supposed money drought. This year PSI launched with Tax Justice Network and the Global Alliance for Tax Justice the State of Tax Justice Report. The report’s most striking finding is that, in total, the world loses 34 million nurse salaries to tax abuse every year. It means one nurse's annual salary lost to offshore tax dodging every single second! A fair tax system is the solution to search for funds to be invested to boost the economy that has been deeply affected everywhere because of the pandemic. Yet around the world corporations and the mega-rich avoid paying their fair share. They are siphoning off money destined for schools and hospitals and funneling it into offshore tax havens.

On the eve of the World Health Summit of G20 which will be held in Rome on March 21, what is required to avoid the melting down of the demand to waive intellectual property rights for vaccines' patents into political bickering and to avoid limiting decisions to commit full funding to the WTO’s plan to distribute Covid-19 vaccines and medicines to poor countries?

Our main request is to translate the good wills into actions. If not now, then when? We have seen important changes about the vaccines' patents issue in the last days, but it has never been so true that time saves lives. We expect a Rome declaration which includes the principle of “health for all” in line with the WHO global agenda and with the Sustainable Development Goals set up in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly and are intended to be achieved by the year 2030. It is no longer time for rhetoric, it is time to take action in the people interest. Our 2030 for health is today! There is no more time to waste.

What is the role of the unions in the MENA region in this issue? How can they pressurize on their governments for the right for all in vaccination?

Since the beginning of the health crisis, Arab affiliates have intensified their activities to face the repercussions of this pandemic at all levels. They called the Governments to apply occupational health and safety standards for workers in various public sectors, particularly in the health sector, where the increase in the positive cases and deaths has been alarming. Egypt, for example, lost 4,000 medical staff as of November 2020. PSI Arab affiliates have also joined the global campaign to waive the WTO Intellectual Property Protection Convention (TRIPS) to accelerate production of the vaccines. Their activities focused on raising unionists’ awareness on this issue, exercising pressure on governments, and building alliances with other unions and civil society organizations. Many unions have also actively participated in several regional and international virtual meetings calling for accelerated vaccine production with free vaccination for all workers because health is a human right for all.

In Kuwait, there are 3 PSI affiliates, which message in this regard would you like to transmit to them?

PSI affiliates in Kuwait, from the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Social affairs and Labor, and from the Municipalities Joined their trade union center in their response to the Covid-19 pandemic. They were among the first organizations to launch awareness campaigns and distribute protective equipment, implemented occupational health and safety workshops in several sectors, and produced 250 videos in 16 languages, on personal protection and on the importance of providing the vaccine to everyone without any discrimination. PSI would like to congratulate them and salute their efforts in defending the right to health to all people living in Kuwait.