Put Public Health ahead of Private Profits PSI tells WHO 

PSI brought the voice of frontline workers to the debate at the WHO’s latest Executive Board meeting in January. Members of our delegation raised deep concerns on the need for a covid recovery which prioritises strong public health institutions over market provision. 

PSI is the only union organisation with consultative status at the WHO and has consistently stressed how well-funded universal public health systems with enough health and care workers who are well motivated and organized are vital for health emergency preparedness and response, even before Covid-19. 

The EB discussed a number of themes which will be brought for deeper discussion and decision at the World Health Assembly in May 2022, including 11 technical items as well as several points that are linked to the Pandemic Treaty negotiations (see full agenda here.) 

PSI is the only union organisation with consultative status at the WHO

At the core of PSI’s arguments was the assertion that public health must be put before the commercial interests of corporations. Once again, PSI called for the suspension of patents on COVID-19 vaccines, tests, and medicines as a pivotal step towards ensuring equitable access.  

Check out our key responses across the main themes: 

Big-Pharma patents holding back the fight against tuberculosis 

The WHO’s own review outlines how budgets for TB related research and innovation are less than half the estimated requirement and have dropped. No new drugs, vaccines, or diagnostics are in immediate sight, highlighting the failure of the intellectual property rights-based incentive model of pharma innovation. Furthermore, research by MSF has outlined how patent rules and the current trade regime are creating barriers to access for existing treatments.  

PSI Executive Board member, Herbert Beck said the following:  

Public funding contributes 3-5 times more to developing TB drugs than the pharmaceutical industry. Yet these drugs are largely unaffordable due to excessively high-profit gouging by corporations. Meanwhile, the production of generics is barred through patents and unnecessary extensions. We urge governments and the WHO to extend the arguments for a TRIPS waiver for Covid-19 technologies to TB and put this on the agenda of the 2023 UNGA high-level meeting on tuberculosis. 

Immunization Agenda 2030 

Judey Henley, General Vice-President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) highlighted how the outsized role of USAID, the Gates Foundation, and the private sector in the development and management of the immunization Agenda 2030 entrenches a leading role for bilateral donors, philanthropic foundations and the private sector in global health governance to the detriment of democratic institutions and governments. 

Judey Henley, CUPE
Judey Henley, CUPE

The over emphasis on private providers as key drivers of immunisation lacks evidence that such a model works in practice. Meanwhile strengthening public services must be better emphasized along with the critical role of community health workers in primary health care delivery.

While the WHO has correctly called out and condemned vaccine inequity, the structural reasons for this – which are also at the heart of immunization inequity in genera - must be better outlined. 

PSI raised the need for the WHO to be a stable multilateral institution - rather than a patchwork of multi-stakeholder initiatives and provisionally funded projects 

Infection prevention and control 

PSI highlighted how under-regulation of private health settings, such as aged care, has exacerbated the covid crisis and infections. We also pointed out how unionisation had empowered workers to raise safety concerns and contribute to healthier facilities. Finally, we encouraged the WHO to focus more closely on adequate staffing – and legislated staff-to-patient ratios which help prevent infection. 

Strengthening WHO preparedness for health emergencies 

This was the agenda point where the emerging Pandemic Treaty discussions were raised. Baba Aye, the PSI Health and Social Services Officer argued that a key objective of a new Pandemic treaty should be prompt, equitable and affordable access to medical products, from PPE and vaccines to tests and treatment through a mandatory open licensing regime and a waiver of WTO’s TRIPS agreement for the relevant health technologies. 

Budget and finance matters  

Sustainable financing of the WHO is key for global health, especially for low-and middle-income countries which rely on the WHO for health policy and technical advice. 

PSI supported the call for increasing assessed contributions from Member-states and raised the need for the WHO to be a stable multilateral institution - rather than a patchwork of multi-stakeholder initiatives and provisionally funded projects. 

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Right now governments across the world are negotiating a new Pandemic Treaty at the World Health Organization, which will shape the Covid-19 recovery and determine how we deal with future crises. Yet this Treaty can only be effective if it responds to the voices of health workers, whose experiences and perspectives through this pandemic must be at the heart of this process.