Mathura, UP, March 15, 2021
Mr. Sachin, Gupta,ji
Chancellor, Sanskriti University, and Our Host,
Mr. Saksham Gupta, ji,
Director, International Affairs, University of Sanskriti,
Mdm. Linda Brady,
Excellencies Ambassadors/High Commissioners,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Allow me to thank the University for inviting us to celebrate with you these 25 years of great success in imparting knowledge and skills to so many alumni. I salute and congratulate you on this auspicious occasion.
I would also like to thank you for this opportunity to speak and, especially as the first speaker from outside. I do not fully understand this honour and privilege which has been given to me. But, as an appreciation for this, I will attempt to set a stage for this important conversation today.
On the whole, I wish to thank you, for the warm reception and for the excellent logistics put in place for us.
It is so much fulfilling for us to finally be able to visit this sacred City – a birth place of Lord Krishna. Thank you very much.
Now, because of the time limitations for each one of us, I have chosen to focus my attention on what I refer one particular issue. This is the issue of vaccines. And I have decided to put a subtitle to it to read as “ENSURING ACCESS TO VACCINES IN THE POST-COVID WORLD: IMPORTANT ISSUES AND LESSONS LEARNT DURING THE PANDEMIC.”
At the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland in the month of January this year, the world leaders emphasized the importance of placing humans at the heart of global cooperation; they also emphasized that democracies should reach out, understand and collaborate with various nations that do not share their values. But also there were calls to build a multilateral framework that works for all of us.
To cap it all, the Davos Agenda 1 was very express, and I would beg to quote it here”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that no institution or individual alone can address the economic, environmental, social and technological challenges of our complex, interdependent world…”
~ The Davos Agenda
First of all, we should and must be cognizant of “the issues” around this area. The Right to Health is, by and large, a Fundamental Human Right.
Apart from the need for vaccines for the ongoing pandemic, most Government administrations realize that low immunization levels among the poor and the marginalized compromise the gains that their countries have made in reducing poverty and healthcare.
Availability of vaccines for everyone is an important cog in that wheel, especially for developing countries in the tropical regions where communicable diseases are a common occurrence.
Such availability can only be ensured by making vaccine as a public good and by making the right to receive vaccine a fundamental human right.
By bringing vaccines within the scope of global public goods, formalized efforts for its fair and transparent distribution across nations can be made and implemented effectively.
The preamble to the World Health Organization Constitution, 1946, which was one of the first places to mention about right to health, lays down that the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition, where health is defined as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
Additionally, Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, mentioned health as part of the right to an adequate standard of living.
This right was yet again recognized as a fundamental human right in Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1966. ICESCR requires States to achieve the progressive realization of the rights protected by the Covenant, including the right to health, both individually and through international assistance and co-operation. States which are able to do so should provide assistance, especially economic, scientific and technical, to developing countries for immunization against major infectious diseases and for the prevention, treatment and control of epidemic and endemic diseases.
The International Health Regulations (2005) were established to facilitate cooperation in mounting an effective public health response to the international spread of disease.
This objective was reaffirmed in the Declaration of Astana (2018) where States reiterated commitments to effective development cooperation and to sharing knowledge and good practices (while fully respecting human rights) in order to prevent, detect and respond to infectious diseases and outbreaks.
Goal 3 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 is to “ensure healthy lives and promote well‐being for all at all ages,” including by combating communicable diseases and by providing access to affordable essential medicines and vaccines.
I will now turn on “the challenges” of the day.
In most cases, vaccines have proved to be the most effective ways to control and eradicate highly infectious diseases.
Unfortunately, there are many challenges to production of public goods such as vaccines, where most of them emanate within the borders of nations.
Vaccines have been considered to be cost-efficient interventions, however as the governments seek to cap the price of such public goods and deny intellectual property protections within their territories, pharmaceutical companies are not happy to make meaningful investments to produce such vaccines.
Another issue is the vaccine nationalism, which has been in full display during the ongoing pandemic.
This is a term that is used to refer to the behavior of countries that have plenty resources at their disposal to enter into Advance Purchase Agreements (APAs) with vaccine manufacturers such as Pfizer-BioTech, AstraZeneca to procure maximum vaccines directly from the manufacturers at a pre-determined price for their citizens ahead of them becoming available for other countries.
As a matter of fact, the unfair distribution of vaccines across countries, or hoarding of vaccines, disregards international legal norms and undermines the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Ideally a State’s action to preserve the interest of its own countrymen is not a crime. However, to procure these global public goods especially in exclusion of those countries having inadequate resources at disposal whereby such procurement reduces or defers the availability of such vaccines for them, is immoral and unethical to say the least.
Through such APAs wealthy countries have been able to secure surplus doses of Covid-19 while less developed economies struggle to find access to cater to a section of its population. This race to get the first access can potentially have devastating effects on the world population and global economy.
In fact, there are estimates that 90% of the population in 67 countries will not be able receive a COVID-19 vaccine in 2021, despite the fact that five of those countries have reported nearly 1.5 million cases between them.
With several countries going under recession, the lack of access to this public good would further slow down the economic recovery.
This is the reason why the global vaccine alliance, GAVI, in the interest of less developed nations with limited resources and to prevent a catastrophic moral failure on the part of developed nations, has pledged equal access to COVAX vaccine fund as the way to end the spread of the current pandemic. To tackle with the problems of vaccine nationalism several international initiatives such as COVAX, which is a multi-stakeholder initiative for distributing vaccines to low-income countries has been set up.
So, the need of the hour is an alignment of interests and incentives essential to produce global public goods which are meant for serving a collective purpose based on mutual understandings.
In such situations, the role of international organizations in facilitating production and distribution of global public goods becomes instrumental. Therefore, cooperation between high income-, middle- and low-income countries is essential to implement and enforce collective goals and thus serving collective interests. The post-covid-19 international community ought to create a normative-institutional structure to ensure that these issues never come in the way of a fundamental human right.
And in this regard, the role of the WHO is important.
The WHO needs to promote suspension of intellectual property rights under the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) as it makes vaccines out of reach of the developing countries due to the high costs involved. It is heartening that countries like India have suspended their intellectual property rights regarding COVID-19 vaccines so as to make it affordable and accessible to such countries. I wish to sincerely commend India for this.
Taking a step further, the WHO should also ensure that the vaccine manufacturers share their technical know-how with developing States to enable them to produce vaccines at a national level. Seen in this light, the WHO needs to assume the role to serve the interests of all nations and act as a universal multilateral institution that takes along all the concerned stakeholders and builds partnerships and most significantly takes the lead and establishes an international instrument that specifically deals with vaccination access.
Another major issue is that the import tariffs on some medical products remain high. For all medical products across all WTO members, the average “bound” tariff — the average tariff ceiling pledged by a country in its WTO concessions — is 26 percent. For almost one‐third of WTO members, the average bound tariff on medical goods exceeds 50 percent. Some members apply tariffs as high as 65 percent on some of these essential products. Average tariffs on the protective supplies used to combat COVID-19 are as high as 27 percent in some countries. The average applied tariff on hand soap is 17 percent. Surprisingly or rather unfortunately, only nine WTO members allow a health product as basic as soap to enter their countries duty‐free.
Friends, it is perfectly understandable that national leaders want to do all they can to make certain that their own citizens have the medicines, medical supplies, and medical care they need, particularly during a pandemic. Yet measures restricting trade in medicines and in medical supplies hurt all countries, particularly the more fragile ones.
In closing, I would urge that in the post-pandemic world, instead of restricting exports of medical goods, countries should be removing barriers to both exports and imports. At the top of the “to‐do-list” of new rules to be agreed upon by the WTO are those that would eliminate all existing trade restrictions on medicines and medical supplies and would require members to refrain from enacting additional restrictions. So, at least, there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
But another essential component of getting to free trade on medical goods is the elimination of all tariffs on imports of drugs and medical equipment. These essential goods are needed everywhere to confront the COVID-19 like emergencies, and no one country can produce all these goods in the amounts they may eventually need.
I thank you for your kind attention.