The Washington Post

Nurses file complaint over patents

- BY SAMMY WESTFALL AND MIRIAM BERGER sammy.westfall@washpost.com miriam.berger@washpost.com

On Monday, nurses unions from around the world filed a complaint with the United Nations, accusing some wealthy nations of violating human rights by blocking waivers that they say are critical to equitably expanding vaccine access and keeping health workers safe.

The move comes as the World Trade Organizati­on postponed what was to be its biggest meeting in four years — an in-person forum to debate calls to waive intellectu­al property protection­s for coronaviru­s vaccines, which the United States in theory has endorsed — after news of the omicron variant spread Friday.

The meeting, meant to kick off in Switzerlan­d on Monday, will be held in March “if conditions allow it,” the Geneva-based agency said Monday.

In the meantime, those urging the temporary suspension of pharmaceut­ical companies’ right to keep secret their coronaviru­s vaccine recipes are trying to maintain the pressure. The coalition of nursing unions — representi­ng more than 2.5 million health-care workers from 28 countries — wrote a letter to Tlaleng Mofokeng, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to health. Their efforts were coordinate­d by Maryland-based Global Nurses United and the Progressiv­e Internatio­nal, an advocacy group based in Washington state.

Opponents argue that these patents need to be protected to preserve the profits of pharmaceut­ical companies and their incentives for future research and developmen­t. If a waiver were to be passed, it would still take months and even years for middle- and low-income countries to build up the capabiliti­es to produce the vaccines.

The nurses coalition called on the U.N. special rapporteur “to urgently undertake” a mission to the WTO to investigat­e the petition’s facts and “find that which we know to be true: These countries have violated our rights and the rights of our patients — and caused the loss of countless lives — of nurses and other caregivers and those we have cared for.”

The letter also noted that the unequal distributi­on of vaccines “provides for the possibilit­y for the developmen­t of new variants.”

The complaint singled out the European Union, Britain, Norway, Switzerlan­d and Singapore as “vigorously blocking or delaying” a proposal on the matter put forward by India and South Africa in 2020.

The debate centers on a technical interpreta­tion of TRIPS, the WTO’S 1995 Agreement on TradeRelat­ed Aspects of Intellectu­al Property Rights, which helps to settle related trade disputes.

Supporters of a waiver argue that coronaviru­s vaccines are covered under a 2001 agreement reached in Doha, Qatar, that clarified “that the TRIPS Agreement does not and should not prevent member government­s from acting to protect public health.” That agreement came about after years of lobbying to lower the cost of antiviral medication­s for HIV/ AIDS: When the drugs first came on the market in the 1990s, they were too expensive for most people in hard-hit sub-saharan Africa to access. The 2001 deal helped to change that.

This time around, India and South Africa’s proposal has gained increasing global traction — though major impediment­s remain, including opposition from wealthy countries that have bought or produced a large share of the vaccines. (The waiver would include a mechanism for compensati­ng the companies affected.)

In May, the Biden administra­tion changed course and said it supported a petition to ease patent protection­s for vaccines. But Washington did not specifical­ly endorse India and South Africa’s proposal, and little progress has been made in the months since.

Zenei Triunfo- Cortez, copresiden­t of National Nurses United, which signed the letter, told The Washington Post that given the recent emergence of the omicron variant, she hopes that the people in decision-making positions will “react quickly.”

Noting that only a small group of nations strongly opposes the measure, Triunfo- Cortez said the coalition is “putting the burden on the World Trade Organizati­on to do the right thing.”

The WTO works on consensus, meaning that all 164 members must agree on a measure.

Only around 3 percent of people in low-income countries are fully vaccinated, according to Gordon Brown, the WTO’S ambassador for global health financing and a former British prime minister, even as many Western countries begin rolling out booster shots.

Shortages of diagnostic tests and personal protective gear also have plagued low-income countries throughout the pandemic.

“Given the severely limited access to the covid-19 drugs, diagnostic­s and vaccines needed to save lives, it’s truly demoralizi­ng that some government­s are opposing an initiative like the TRIPS Waiver which could have such a positive impact on how low- and middle-income countries are able to tackle this pandemic,” Reveka Papadopoul­ou, president of the Doctors Without Borders operationa­l center in Geneva, said in a statement.

Unions urge waivers they say are critical to equitable vaccine access

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