Big pharma fuelling human rights crisis over vaccine inequity, says Amnesty
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Big pharma fuelling human rights crisis over Covid-19 vaccine inequity, says Amnesty

By Darcy Jimenez 22 Sep 2021

The human rights group has accused the world’s leading vaccine makers of failing to allocate doses fairly across the globe.

Big pharma fuelling human rights crisis over Covid-19 vaccine inequity, says Amnesty
Since the start of the pandemic, several initiatives have been launched to tackle vaccine scarcity by sharing knowledge and technology. Credit: lev radin / Shutterstock.com

Major Western Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers are “causing human rights harms” by prioritising wealthy countries and refusing to share intellectual property (IP) and technology, Amnesty International have said in a report published today.

The human rights group has accused six companies – Pfizer, BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax – of neglecting their responsibility to respect human rights by failing to fairly allocate vaccine doses across the globe.

In the 64-page report, the organisation also cites unfair prices and a lack of transparency regarding contracts, pricing and technology as contributing factors to the desperate vaccine inequity seen in poorer countries.

“Despite receiving billions of dollars in government funding and advance orders which effectively removed risks normally associated with the development of medicines, vaccine developers have monopolised intellectual property, blocked technology transfers, and lobbied aggressively against measures that would expand the global manufacturing of these vaccines,” it said.

“Some companies – Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna – have so far delivered almost exclusively to rich countries, putting profit before access to health for all.”

According to the report, 98% of all Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine deliveries had been allocated to high- and upper-middle-income countries at the beginning of September. Amnesty said this is also the case for 88% of jabs from Moderna, which is yet to deliver a single dose to a low-income country.

Vaccine hoarding and inequality

While almost six billion Covid-19 vaccine doses have been administered worldwide so far – and wealthier countries have begun vaccinating children and offering additional booster jabs – a measly 0.3% of shots have been distributed to the world’s poorest nations.

Around 55% of people in rich countries are fully vaccinated against coronavirus, compared to fewer than 1% in lower-income nations, Amnesty highlighted.

The report acknowledged that rich states have hoarded supplies of Covid-19 vaccines, but said that vaccine makers have “played a decisive role in limiting global vaccine production and obstructing fair access to a life-saving health product” by refusing to take measures that would boost global vaccine supply.

Since the start of the pandemic, several initiatives have been launched to tackle vaccine scarcity by sharing knowledge and technology. To date, the companies mentioned in Amnesty’s report have refused to take part in these schemes and remain opposed to the temporary waiver of vaccine IP proposed at the World Trade Organization (WTO) by India and South Africa last year.

Biopharma trade associations have argued that waiving vaccine IP would undermine innovation in drug development. In April, Biotechnology Innovation Organization president and CEO Michelle McMurry-Heath argued in a guest editorial for The Economist that the WTO proposal “destroys the incentive for companies to take risks to find solutions for the next health emergency”.

100 days to act

Alongside the publication of its report, Amnesty has launched a global campaign giving countries and pharmaceutical companies 100 days – until the end of the year – to meet the World Health Organization’s target of vaccinating 40% of the population of low and lower-middle income countries.

The group is urging countries to “redistribute hundreds of millions of excess vaccine doses currently sitting idle”, and wants vaccine makers to ensure that at least 50% of doses produced are delivered to low and lower-middle income countries.

Amnesty International’s secretary general Agnès Callamard said: “Vaccinating the world is our only pathway out of this crisis. Now should be time to hail these companies – who created vaccines so quickly – as heroes.

“But instead – and to their shame – big pharma’s intentional blocking of knowledge transfer and their wheeling and dealing in favour of wealthy states has brewed an utterly devastating vaccine scarcity for so many others.

“Their actions are plunging parts of Latin America, Africa and Asia into renewed crises, pushing weakened health systems to the very brink and causing tens of thousands of preventable deaths every week. In many low-income countries not even health workers or at-risk people have received the vaccine.

“Against the backdrop of these gross inequalities, BioNTech, Moderna and Pfizer are set to make $130bn combined by the end of 2022.

“Profits should never come before lives.”