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UK urged to back waiver to free poorer countries to develop COVID-19 vaccines

The UK’s continued blocking of a waiver of intellectual property rights that stand in the way of access to COVID-19 vaccines in low and middle income countries is being carefully scrutinized by human rights lawyers.

Posted on 25 November 2021

Global Justice Now and Just Fair have sent a letter of concern to the Secretary of State for International Trade putting her on notice of the potential human rights implications of the UK’s continued blocking of the proposed Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver.

The letter has been sent on the same day as a threat of legal action has been issued against the governments of other countries who are also obstructing global efforts to increase access to COVID-19 vaccines.
The action is being taken ahead of the Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) taking place next week. At that meeting the issue of a TRIPS waiver for Covid vaccines is likely to be decided. More than 100 WTO members, including the USA, have expressed support for the waiver and the proposal is co-sponsored by more than 60 WTO members.
If the waiver is agreed, it will mean greater ability for low and middle-income countries to produce and export Covid vaccines at affordable cost, potentially saving millions of lives.
The UK is one of a handful of states continuing to block adoption of the waiver by consensus at the WTO. Legal action has already been threatened against the governments of Germany, Norway and Canada.
In their letter to International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, sent on their behalf by law firm Leigh Day, Global Justice Now and Just Fair set out their view, which is shared by international institutions, including at the UN, and many renowned jurists, that the UK’s position is incompatible with its obligations pursuant to international human rights law. They along with many other NGOs including Medecins Sans Frontieres and Amnesty International, have urged the UK government to join the growing international consensus in favour of the TRIPS waiver.
Global Justice Now and Just Fair say the UK’s obstruction of the waiver breaches Article 28 of the ECHR, Articles 55 and 56 of the UN Charter, Article 2 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), under which Article 12 guarantees the right of everyone to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health and Article 15 establishes the right “to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications”.
Global Justice Now and Just Fair urge the UK Government to act in the interests not only of millions of unvaccinated people living in low and middle income countries, but also its own citizens who are at risk of new variants emerging in unvaccinated parts of the world.
Leigh Day lawyer Erin Alcock said:
“Our clients are concerned that the UK Government has not properly considered this issue within the framework of human rights laws, domestic and international, and the serious impact this could have on the lives of millions of people across the world, and here in the UK.”
Jamie Burton QC of Doughty Street Chambers and chair of Just Fair said: 
“The TRIPS waiver is the international communities’ best response to the Covid pandemic and represents the efforts of over 100 countries to protect the rights to life and health of millions around the world. Something similar was eventually done in relation to the AIDS/HIV pandemic and realistically there is no other option available but to support the waiver now if a Covid catastrophe is to be avoided in the parts of the world where vaccine rates are still alarmingly low. None of us are safe until we are all safe.” 
Nick Dearden of Global Justice Now said: 
“Throughout this pandemic, the UK Government has appeared to put the interests of big pharmaceutical businesses ahead of the need to save lives around the world and defeat this pandemic. The epitome of this approach is that they have effectively blocked, repeatedly, the one measure the vast majority of the world has demanded – the waiver of intellectual property rules at the WTO. We hope our action today will send a clear message: they need to stop blocking action at the WTO.”

Erin Alcock
Human rights Judicial review

Erin Alcock

Erin is an associate in the human rights team

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