By MARYA SALAMAT and JANESS ANN ELLAO
with a report from REIN TARINAY
MANILA – On December 1, the World Health Assembly, WHO’s decision-making body, capped a three-day rare assembly with a decision to craft an international accord on pandemic response. They met while the WTO postponed its 12th ministerial conference scheduled at almost the same period. At the center of talks in the MC12 is the TRIPS waiver in response also to the pandemic.
The WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) plays a crucial role in allowing big pharmacies to profit from Covid-19 vaccine production, the International League of Peoples’ Struggle said in a statement on November 30. It said that by insisting COVID-19 vaccines remain under the control of Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson under their TRIPS-mandated 20-year monopoly patents, the WTO has effectively restricted access to these life-saving vaccines especially for countries who need them the most.
In the WHO the global pandemic treaty was proposed in a high-profile call by 25 heads of governments led by the EU, international groups, and the WHO’s director-general in March this year. The TRIPS waiver in the WTO, meanwhile, has been put forward by more than 100 of the WTO’s 164-member states in its meeting in October 2020.
One year later, in October this year, civil society and grassroots organizations together with doctors and health workers from around the world denounced the WTO saying it is culpable for the death of millions due to the pandemic.
The waiver is meant to provide immediate relief for underdeveloped economies by suspending patent rights under TRIPS and allowing the thriving generic medicine industries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to manufacture vaccines without paying exorbitant royalties to big pharmaceutical corporations.
In the Philippines, the government has pegged the country’s salvation from the pandemic on vaccines and lockdowns, but from last year to the now, it is “deafeningly silent” on the TRIPS waiver that could have helped it get more vaccines sooner. The Coalition for People’s Right to Health (CPRH) picketed the Department of Trade and Industry, urging it to “choose people’s health over patent and profit.”
Global peoples’ movements responded to the postponement of the WTO Ministerial Conference with an International Day of Action Against the WTO on November 30. Even as the 12th Ministerial Meeting scheduled in Geneva on November 30 – December 3, 2021, was postponed, negotiations continue. Filipina activist Liza Maza, general secretary of the International League of Peoples’ Struggle and former Gabriela Women Party Representative in Congress, rued that more deadly mutations of the COVID-19 virus could have been prevented if patents for the vaccine and treatments have been waived.
As for the WHO’s announced the start of negotiating a pandemic treaty, the loudest welcome has come from its proponents.
A treaty, an instrument, a battle for reforms
In WHO’s 73-year history, it negotiated only two international treaties under its auspices. These are the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2003 and the International Health Relations updated in 2005.
“This is an idea whose time has come,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of the pandemic treaty early this year. At the closing of the World Health Assembly on December 1, he welcomed the would-be first meeting of the intergovernmental negotiating body no later than the first of March 2022, and its output submission for consideration of the next World Health Assembly in 2024.
But to the civil society and grassroots organizations who studied the trove of literature on the pandemic treaty with experts and frontline workers in the pandemic response, the treaty is an idea that begs the question why. The Geneva Global Health Hub (G2H2), an independent platform of civil society organizations committed to advancing the right to health, said the WHO is actually already equipped with a binding instrument aimed to address health emergencies. This is the International Health Regulations (IHR)56 adopted by the World Health Assembly (WHA) in 1969, revised in 2005, but “grossly overlooked during the harshest phases of the viral evolution in 2020.”
The IHR 2005 is an international law providing for international collaboration for public health response to a public health emergency of international concern under the aegis of WHO and its Member States.
Tracing the path of the push for a pandemic treaty, its leading proponents for months now were the European Union and Britain, who want it to carry legal or more binding force. Other heads of governments such as the US and China have expressed qualified support.
The G2H2 report on this treaty’s beginnings tells of a “top-down” push, a “forced rush” and a “presumed need” for a binding pandemic agreement. They found it was led by a handful of European member states that endorsed the treaty in all possible international circles and ascribed global legitimacy to it even though their populations comprise less than 15 percent of the world population. The report also said the makings of the treaty followed “reversed policy steps” — WHO chief Ghebreyesus’ support for it “has put the WHO legal team in a rather awkward situation as they now need to recommend a treaty while a proper analysis of expressed needs and pathways by member states is still missing.”
International law experts have criticized the WHO reports pushing for a new treaty saying it “contains remarkably little analyses of the far-reaching and multi-faceted detrimental effects that the WHO’s and different States’ response to the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has had and continues to have on people’s health and lives around the world.”
The proposed treaty has lofty goals and buzzwords that government heads wanting to show they are taking actions may not publicly reject. For example, strengthening the architecture of global health security and the WHO, pursuing “multilateralism,” transparency, and better cooperation. From statements of the proponents though, it may only mean further privatization of public health and enforcing global surveillance favoring corporations and its research without clear benefits for the people or low-income countries.
As of now the pandemic is still raging and requiring immediate policy and countermeasures. Obviously, the people can’t wait until 2024 for governments to get their acts together guided by a hopefully stronger WHO, as promised in the pandemic treaty.
Experts and civil society from the global South, and those who have directly been at the forefront of responses to the pandemic in different countries, preferred addressing the reasons for the COVID-19 failure rather than creating a new treaty or instrument. They said what is needed are concrete actions in dealing with the current pandemic and related inequalities including access to medicines and vaccines. Be it a pandemic treaty or instrument, they believe it must address the WTO TRIPS agreement, like coming up with exceptions to TRIPS in times of emergency.
Just to create a political momentum for poor countries’ access to medicines in the WHO, advocates have reportedly been exerting painstaking initiatives. These include the WHO Global Strategy on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property. But, experience showed these have been “progressively neutralized and dismantled into a toothless WHO mapping and bureaucratic exercise by a very few influential member states, among them the EU.” This is the same EU “meticulously firing on all cylinders to make the treaty happen”, as a diplomat from a developing country was quoted in the G2H2 report.
In the WHO, governments of developed countries have repeatedly stalled if not mangled the research-based, bottom-up processes (meaning these were driven by international civil society organizations and voices from the global South) of hammering out policies and agreement. On record, these included the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and more recently, the Research and Development Treaty, which advocates have advanced into a WHO resolution (WHA61.21), then a WHO Consultative Expert Working Group and finally the UN High Level Panel on Access to Medicines.
Now the EU (and the US) both have proposals titled as if considering inequities in healthcare and vaccines. The EU, as mentioned, has been pushing hard for a treaty while the US has circulated last October a review of the IHR (International Health Regulations) suggesting to “Improve Equity in the Global Health Security Preparedness and Response.”
In the US’ paper about IHR, analysts said that in the name of equity, the US inputs are skewed to reinforce and maintain the status quo of its dominance in the global pharmaceutical industry.
Similarly, the push for a global pandemic treaty carries inspiring buzzwords such as “global solidarity”, “fairness”, “trust”, “equity”, “transparency”. Yet, the most visible proffered solution of one of its heavy lobbyists is a centralized global surveillance system, as the EU promoted the features of the pandemic treaty on its website.
Rather than a legal commitment to enhance equity, both promote market options, using the pandemic to impose knowledge sharing without offering benefits in exchange for it. However, civil society and grassroots groups have long protested against unconditional sharing.
“The pharma industry uses free access to develop various health products and then uses intellectual property (IP) to exercise monopoly over these products. The use of IP results in the remote possibility of benefit sharing by preventing others in the industry from developing the generic or follow-on products,” said the Third World Network in a paper last October.
As such, be it for a treaty or other instruments, White House press secretary can say in response to WHA decision to commence making a treaty that “Of course, that’s in all of our interests.”
To Treat the disease with more poisons? How to solve the pandemic
“Benefit sharing” is something the world’s poor people and countries could more strongly demand because of the pandemic, which savagely exposed the inequities and problems caused by old and new models of capitalist growth. Discussions among grassroots organizations and their campaigns are replete with opposing the neo-liberal reforms that have turned human rights like healthcare into profit-making businesses. But the mostly market-based proposals of contending top-down push for either a new treaty or instruments or reforms in the WHO seem only to ride on peoples’ demands (such as making available more countermeasures to health emergencies) without addressing the roots of the problem, say, why many people and countries in the first place cannot access vaccines when it was glutting the warehouses of rich countries.
Worse, it may even institutionalize various forms of public-private partnerships that have been proven to weaken healthcare. A few glaring examples were the COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access) and ACT-A (Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator), “prototype architecture” for dealing with global health emergencies. These are public-private projects that, similar to usual PPPs, tap into public funding and government power to do more profitable business.
Based on the research’s findings of G2H2, one of the remits of the pandemic treaty may be to seal the establishment of entities like COVAX inside the WHO institution, with the WHO Member States’ blessing.
Another is to keep the current set of global trade agreements to increase manufacturing, while still upholding the IP monopoly.
All these directly conflict with the growing call for TRIPS waiver. “Respondents from civil society organizations agree that the treaty proposal is in the end ‘a political distraction from the TRIPS waiver dialogue, a tactical bypass and political bargain by the EU’,” wrote the G2H2 in “Politics of a WHO Pandemic Treaty”.
“The pandemic treaty pathway being pushed by the EU, UK and other countries may well serve the purpose of implementing alternative solutions to the TRIPS Waiver. It will be great if the block of countries supporting the waiver at the WTO organize themselves at the WHO to avoid any derailment from their demands,” Nicoletta Dentico, Co-chair Geneva Global Health Hub (G2H2) and Head of Global Health Justice Program of Society for International Development (SID) told Bulatlat.
It seems that if there is to be a meaningful global pandemic treaty, it has to be conceived outside of the hypocrisies of neoliberal reforms or other models of capitalist growth.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has further exposed the gross inequalities between the rich and the poor and between men and women. It has further revealed the underlying multiple crises of the global capitalist system: the economic, political and environmental crises which brought the world to the health crisis we are facing today,” said Len Cooper, chairperson of International League of Peoples’ Struggle, at the International Day of Action Against the WTO on November 30.
He noted that even at the time of Covid and climate emergency, the WTO remains consistent in its foundational impulse to constantly enhance and reinvent neoliberal globalization to further profits at the expense of people’s rights.
Such enhancements and reinvents also make its appearance in the developed countries’ proposals to “strengthen” the WHO during pandemics – from institutionalizing PPPs to facilitating monopolies’ R & D.
A pandemic response also can’t limit its concerns to just conditional health care and health financing and unconditional knowledge-sharing. Based on the combined take of health experts, grassroots organizations and civil society groups on what a pandemic response must have, it should at least include “putting an end to the free-riding operations of transnational corporations which carry out extractive operations in many parts of the world with no legal liability –” resulting in “severe human rights violations, devastation of the environment and complete impunity in the Global South.”
They say a pandemic response must also explore “fiscal justice,” provide direly needed support for socio-economic recovery instead of following the advice of IMF and G20 and other institutions to impose austerity schemes.
“Canceling all external debt payments due in 2020 alone by the 76 lowest income countries would liberate US$ 40 billion, US$ 300 billion if cancellation included 2021. Releasing such gigantic amounts would be in itself a global common that would enable investments in pandemic preparedness and response,” the G2H2 said in its research report.
In fact, the health groups’ findings suggest that canceling debts is not enough, because the creditor countries and their neoliberal industrial policies and TNC’s plundering have come to owe the impoverished peoples and countries big time. It abundantly contributed to shaping the ‘Age of pandemics’ where “pathogens of zoonotic origin, and challenges posed by antimicrobial resistance, present a continued and growing risk.” In short, the poor majority in rich nations and low-income countries are suffering from activities that enriched few people and countries, yet the latter as creditors of those they pushed to poverty further make life miserable for the poor. Debt cancellation is thus a pittance when talking of social justice or disaster preparedness
“With the pandemic treaty, countries are trying to show to themselves, and the world, that they are doing something. That is a weakness of the entire process and the problem is that they are all focused in the solutionism of the future rather than on the major mistakes made in the past,” Dentico of the G2H2 research and advocacy project, and co-author of the report on pandemic treaty, told Bulatlat.
Their report concluded that “Whatever the route of the pandemic treaty, whatever the strategies for pandemic preparedness and response, it will not be possible for negotiators to sideline how deeply unjust the international order is, and to avoid positioning themselves vis á vis this conjuncture.”
As Len Cooper of ILPS said last Nov 30, “Now more than ever, the time is ripe for a new global economic system based on solidarity, mutual benefit and respect for national and people’s sovereignty.” He invited all grassroots organizations to mount protest actions in their countries, and join the struggle for a people’s alternative to the current capitalist system. (RVO)
This report was published with assistance from APWLD Media Fellowship