Coronavirus: Calls for free COVID-19 vaccine ahead of WHO assembly

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Corona Chronicles: 10 May – 15 May

By Patrick Smith

Posted on Friday, 15 May 2020 18:31
Switzerland WHO COVID-19
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), gives a statement to the media about the response to the COVID-19 virus outbreak, at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

The World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organisation, opens its annual meeting on Monday 18 May against the backdrop of worsening geopolitical clashes over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

African and European states are jointly defending the position of Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as Director General of the WHO against accusations from U.S. President Donald Trump that the organisation bungled the early stages of the outbreak of coronavirus in January.

The European Union, with the backing of the African Union, Australia and New Zealand, have also drafted a resolution for the assembly asserting the over-arching role of the WHO in managing the pandemic: “Recognising the mandate of the WHO, [its] directing and coordinating authority on international health work .. its key leadership within the broader UN response in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.”

$400 million of funding suspended

This comes a month after President Trump’s decision to suspend $400m of funding for the WHO, although the US is currently $200m in arrears to the organisation. Trump’s political allies accused Tedros of being credulous of China’s reports about the spread of the virus in January as they ramped up attacks on Beijing for not containing the outbreak.

After top officials at the WHO briefed them on the body’s role in sending warnings and advisory reports about the coronavirus outbreak through the UN system and wider world, African ambassadors in Geneva drafted a hard-hitting response to the US critique: “Certain leaders have decided to deflect attention from challenges in managing and mitigating the pandemic to scapegoating the WHO and its director-general.”

READ MORE Coronavirus: Bill Gates defends WHO from Trump, gives $11m

It further questioned the motives of the attacks against Tedros, who has received a torrent of online abuse and even death threats : “We note that the director-general is an African, which lends an unfortunate racial undertone to the criticism and related social-media campaigns underway.”

“People’s vaccine”

African and European states are also leading the call for the ‘People’s vaccine’ in their resolution to the assembly which recognizes: “…the role of extensive immunization against COVID-19 as a global public good in preventing, containing and stopping transmission to bring the pandemic to an end once vaccines are available.”

Any vaccine against COVID-19 must be treated as a public good for the world and not subject to  the laws of the market.

These sentiments were echoed in an open letter signed by South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, Ghana’s Nana Akufo-Addo and Senegal’s Macky Sall and another 150 political and civic leaders demanding that all vaccine treatments and tests should be patent-free, mass produced, distributed fairly and made available to all people, in all countries, free of charge.”

READ MORE Coronavirus: WHO warns of 190,000 deaths in Africa

Explaining the initiative, which proposes mandatory worldwide pooling of patents and sharing of all COVID-19 related knowledge and technologies, Ramaphosa told journalists: “Billions of people today await a vaccine that is our best hop of ending this pandemic … no one should be pushed to the back of the queue because of where they live or what they earn.”

US rejects such proposals

US officials close to President Trump, such as his ambassador to Geneva, Andrew Bremberg, reject such proposals and are trying to amend the resolution at the WHO assembly on 18 May.

Representing the interests of the US’s big pharmaceutical companies, which are racing against their Chinese rivals to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, they argue that such a plan – removing the massive financial incentives for research – would be utopian.

They have also made it clear that their first priority would be to supply vaccines to the domestic US market. This plays into a pattern of a deepening nationalist response to the pandemic. As the US and Chinese governments trade insults over blame and effective responses to the pandemic, other regions look on increasingly frustrated.

Push-back against “commercial logic”

On 14 May, France’s President Emmanuel Macron summoned Paul Hudson, chief executive of the French-owned Sanofi pharmaceuticals group to a dressing down after he told Bloomberg News that the US had the right to “the  largest pre-order of a coronavirus vaccine because it’s invested in taking the risk.”

Macron, who is meeting with the company’s top management in Paris next week, pushed back against that commercial logic. Any vaccine against COVID-19 must be treated as a “public good for the world and not subject to  the laws of the market,” he said after meeting with Hudson.

That argument is going to play out centre-stage at the WHO assembly in Geneva, as the 185 member states of the organisation try to reach agreement on this critical issue in managing the pandemic as its spread accelerates in South America and Africa.

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