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UN expert urges States to end ‘vaccine apartheid’

14 June 2022

GENEVA (14 June 2022) – A UN human rights expert today urged the World Trade Organization (WTO) to ease intellectual property rules that protect the technology behind Covid-19 vaccines and treatments, calling transnational racial inequalities in access to immunizations a form of “vaccine apartheid.”

In an open letter to the WTO’s Twelfth Ministerial Conference, the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, E. Tendayi Achiume urged the adoption of a comprehensive COVID-19 waiver of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS),which she said was supportedby a broad coalition of States and civil society groups. The waiver would relax the WTO’s intellectual property rules and lead to increased production and distribution of vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments for those without access to COVID-19 healthcare.

“A failure to authorize a comprehensive waiver would run counter to the fundamental human rights principles of racial equality and non-discrimination,” Achiume said.

The UN expert said the racially discriminatory outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic have been well-documented, with racially marginalized groups experiencing disproportionate economic, social and health harms due to the pandemic. The racial inequality had been reproduced between nations, she said.

“As of June 2022, 72.09% of people in high income countries had been vaccinated with at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, whereas only 17.94% of people in low-income countries have been vaccinated,” Achiume said. “The current status quo amounts to a system of “vaccine apartheid.”

The Special Rapporteur said COVID-19 vaccines and treatments have been stockpiled in high-income nations in the Global North, leaving States in the Global South without affordable access to life-saving treatments. She said that under the TRIPS agreement, intellectual property protections have prevented States in the Global South from producing COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, accruing profits to Northern corporations at the cost of human lives.

“Because those most harmed by vaccine apartheid are racially marginalized peoples, unequal access to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments within and between nations is undeniably an issue of racial injustice,” Achiume said. “This injustice is compounded by the enduring inequality in wealth, power, and healthcare resources between States, which can be traced to transnational histories of racism and colonialism.”

Recalling that many WTO Members now resisting a full TRIPS waiver were on the forefront of denouncing systemic racial discrimination in the aftermath of the 2020 racial justice uprisings, Achiume said: “At that time, those States called for cooperation of all nations and all peoples in eradicating racial inequality and systemic racism.”

In her letter, the Special Rapporteur urged State representatives at the Ministerial Conference to honour those commitments and legal obligations for equality and non-discrimination enshrined in international human rights law.

“States must demonstrate the political will, leadership and firm commitment to racial equality that transformative change requires,” Achiume said.


*The UN expert: Ms E. Tendayi Achiume,  Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance

Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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