PSI calls on governments to put “health before wealth” at WHO Executive Board

The 148th Executive Board session of the World Health Organization (WHO) kicked-off on Monday 18th January. The Covid-19 response is the most important item on the agenda of the weeklong virtual meeting. In his opening remarks, the WHO Director General, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, highlighted the importance of “rapid and equitable rollout of vaccines”.

But he also regretted the fact that “we now face the real danger that even as vaccines bring hope to some, they become another brick in the wall of inequality between the world’s haves and have-nots.” While 39 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines have been administered in almost 50 wealthy countries, only 25 doses have been given in poorer countries, and this was in just one lowest-income country.

Public Services International reiterated the worrisome point that a few rich countries are hoarding vaccines while about 70 poorer countries might not be able to vaccinate more than one in ten people before the end of the year. Speaking at the Executive Board meeting, Baba Aye, the PSI Health and Social Sector Officer argued that this situation is “morally indefensible, short-sighted and runs against the spirit of the 73rd World Health Assembly’s Covid-19 Resolution” and insisted that “we must put health before wealth”.

PSI urged the EB to call on Member States to ensure waiver of Intellectual Property Rights to enable upscaling of Covid-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and other technologies production.

The Health Assembly’s resolution which was unanimously adopted last May stressed the need for “transparent equitable and timely access to quality, safe and efficacious diagnostics, therapeutics, medicines and vaccines”. But this laudable decision is being undermined in practice by continued global dominance of the market logic. This failed neoliberal approach worships profit over and above the lives of people. Corporations stand to make billions of dollars in profit from vaccine sales. But lack of universal access to vaccines presents a looming danger to all in the long run.

There are already at least three Covid-19 variants which have spread across 57 countries in the past few months. Vaccine mutation is not uncommon. And while the new variants have demonstrated increased transmissibility, they can all still be checkmated by the seven vaccines already developed. But the longer it takes for everybody to have access, the greater the risk of less benign mutations, consequently making the pandemic last for a longer period.

This is unacceptable. Covid-19 vaccines must be free and available to everybody. The expedited development of these vaccines would not have been possible without significant public funding and the intellectual contributions of public servants. Yet, corporations assert Intellectual Property Rights, thus drawing rents on vaccines, at a time that requires global solidarity and a clear prioritization of people over profit.

Apart from the important issue of high prices of vaccines, it is impossible for just a few vaccine developers to produce enough vaccines for the global population. PSI thus urged the Executive Board to call on Member States to ensure waiver of Intellectual Property Rights to enable upscaling of Covid-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and other technologies production.

Baba Aye also drew attention to the central place of health workers in the Covid-19 response and called on WHO Member States to prioritize the recruitment and training of health workers, as well as decent work in the health services, in line with the recommendations of the United Nations High-Level Commission on Health Employment and Economic Growth and the WHO Working for Health: Five-Year Action Plan on Health Employment and Inclusive Economic Growth (2017-2021).