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Covid-19: Wealthy states and pharma companies catastrophically failed to ensure equal access to vaccines in 2021

Wealthy states and pharma companies have catastrophically failed to ensure equal access to vaccines, leaving billions of people without life-saving medicines this year, Amnesty International said today as 2021 draws to a close.   

Despite repeated calls from Amnesty International and others such as the World Health Organization to ensure at least 40% of people in low and lower-middle-income countries are vaccinated by the end of 2021, wealthy states and pharmaceutical companies have continued to ignore these pleas.

“Although the world has produced some 11 billion vaccines doses – only seven percent of people in low-income countries have received a single dose. Why is it that poorer countries are being denied access to life-saving medicine while rich countries sit on piles of unused stock?” said Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

Why is it that poorer countries are being denied access to life-saving medicine while rich countries sit on piles of unused stock?

Agnès Callamard, Secretary General

“The emergence of the Omicron variant should serve as a wake-up call to the wealthy states and pharma companies that failed to address the pandemic at a global level. Failing to vaccinate everyone – no matter where they are from – leaves the entire global population vulnerable to new variants. The only way to break this vicious cycle is by ensuring everyone has access to vaccines.”

This year saw leaders around the world make numerous promises about sharing vaccines, yet time and time again they failed to honour them. In June, the G7 summit pledged to share 1 billion doses by the end of 2021, although reports suggest this target is yet to be met. In September, US President Joe Biden and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen committed to donating an extra 900 million doses to low and lower-middle income countries by September 2022. While this is a welcome move, poorer countries are in need of vaccines right now.  

Pharmaceutical companies have also failed to rise to the challenge. US pharma giant Pfizer has made misleading statements that its “vaccine would be available to every patient, country and community that seeks access”, while it has in fact delivered the large majority of its vaccines to high and upper-middle-income countries. Its rival, Moderna, was only able to develop its vaccine with the support of US government scientists and huge amounts of financial aid, but has also prioritised sales to wealthy countries. Both companies are still delivering less than 1% of their stock to low-income countries

Moderna and Pfizer, along with other vaccine manufacturers, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson, have also, critically, refused to support measures that would temporarily lift intellectual property protections and share vaccine technology with other manufacturers around the world, in order to allow for a ramping up of global production.

All businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights. Above all, this responsibility means that companies should “do no harm”. If they discover that they are the cause of human rights abuses, then they must immediately stop their harmful actions and provide remedy. This is a widely recognized standard of expected conduct as set out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. 

But through their decisions, the vaccine makers have ended up causing or contributing to human rights harms suffered by billions of people lacking access to the Covid-19 vaccine.

“Around this time last year, the first vaccine was administered. More than 365 days later, whilst many in wealthier countries have received up to three doses, so many more in poorer countries have received none. We face the dismal reality – magnified by the brutal clarity of the pandemic – that some lives are simply considered more worthy of saving than others. What a truly devastating end to the year,” said Agnès Callamard.

We face the dismal reality – magnified by the brutal clarity of the pandemic – that some lives are simply considered more worthy of saving than others. What a truly devastating end to the year

Agnès Callamard, Secretary General

“We hoped that international pressure would help wealthy states and big pharmaceutical companies to see sense, stop hoarding vaccines and share intellectual property rights, but greed got the better of them. Let’s hope their new year’s resolutions include making good on their promises and making sure everyone has the chance to get vaccinated.

“Many low-income countries are now struggling to deal with a deadly new variant while the majority of their populations haven’t even been vaccinated at all. Unless drastic action is taken now, Covid-19 will continue to wreak havoc for years to come and the key question now is, what will happen if large parts of the world remain unvaccinated? It has never been clearer that no one is safe until everyone is safe.”

Background

Since 22 September 2021, in line with others such as the WHO, Amnesty International has been calling on states and pharmaceutical companies to ensure equal access to Covid-19 vaccines so that at least 40% of people in low and lower-middle-income countries can get vaccinated by the end of 2021 with its campaign, The 100 Day Countdown: 2 billion vaccines now!

Amnesty International will be releasing a briefing early next year with the latest data, detailing how pharmaceutical companies and states have failed to prioritise the needs of low-income countries.