Global Vaccine Equity Action

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Pope Francis, and many other religious leaders, stress that vaccines are a common good, they only achieve their purpose if everyone has access to them: no one is safe until we are all safe. 

In the context of a pandemic, and of an international pharmaceutical market marked by oligopoly, governments have a moral responsibility to intervene to ensure just access to vaccines for all, with a fair return for companies. Rent-seeking behavior in the face of a catastrophic global threat to human life is unconscionable. 

It is precisely because vaccines are a common good that governments have contributed to funding their research and development. These public funds should contribute to the good of all, rather than serving the sole purpose of commercial exploitation. A focus on profit alone is “not ethically acceptable in the field of medicine and healthcare”(1). 

The Vatican’s international COVID Commission points to the following shared values in health emergencies: “equal respect for people (human dignity and fundamental rights), reduction of suffering (solidarity towards those in need or sick), correctness or fairness (no discrimination, and fair distribution of benefits and burdens)” (2). We welcome the Australian Government’s participation in COVAX and its donation of vaccines in our region. These actions reflect the values outlined by the COVID Commission, and we want to encourage their continuation. 

In his Urbi et Orbi address last Christmas, Pope Francis urged all of us not to place ourselves “ahead of others, letting the law of the marketplace and patents take precedence over the law of love and the health of humanity” and he asked “government leaders, businesses, international organizations” to foster cooperation and “to seek a solution for everyone… especially for the most vulnerable and needy of all regions of the planet”(3).

A waiver of certain aspects of the World Trade Organisation Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for COVID-19 vaccines and medical products would enable greater access to vaccines for the whole human family, while allowing for an appropriate return – and not super profits – for pharmaceutical companies. 

That is why I joined a delegation of representatives of member organisations of the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET), to meet with Trade Minister Dan Tehan on 7 September.  

AFTINET members see the proposal for a temporary waiver of parts of the TRIPS multilateral agreement put forward by the Indian and South African governments as a key strategy for ensuring equitable access to vaccines. We urged Minister Tehan to build support for those efforts at upcoming international meetings. 

Following our meeting, Bishop Vincent Long van Nguyen OFM Conv, chair of the Bishops Commission for Social Justice, Mission and Service, publicly affirmed that it is important for the Australian Government to speak up prominently for that initiative at the upcoming TRIPS meeting. 

“Relying on voluntary agreements with companies has not produced the outcomes that vulnerable communities around the world need,” Bishop Long explained. 

“At present, governments must negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for access to vaccines. These companies have limited manufacturing capacity, but they control the quantity of vaccines produced, the price and any agreements for the sharing of intellectual property to enable the local production of vaccines. 

“As the Vatican’s international COVID Commission says, a focus on profit alone is not ethically acceptable in the field of medicine and healthcare. 

“The TRIPS waiver would enable greater access to vaccines for the whole human family” he concluded. 

Find out more about AFTINET action for equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines here: http://aftinet.org.au/cms/taxonomy/term/188#overlay-context=bulletins

Dr Sandie Cornish 
Office for Justice, Ecology and Peace

(1) Note of the Vatican Covid-19 Commission in collaboration with the Pontifical Academy for Life “Vaccine for all. 20 points for a fairer and healthier world”, 29.12.2020 https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2020/12/29/201229c.html n 8. 

(2) Ibid. n 1. 

(3) Francis, Urbi et Orbi, 25 December 2020. https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/urbi/documents/papa-francesco_20201225_urbi-et-orbi-natale.html