Nurses worldwide demand end to corporate curbs on coronavirus vaccines
The Republic of Congo received just over 300,000 doses of the COVID vaccines through the COVAX Facility in August 2021. The shipment leaves millions in the country without access to vaccine. | UNICEF/Aimable Twiringiyima

GENEVA, Switzerland—Nurses unions worldwide want to end curbs on distributing anti-coronavirus vaccines around the globe. So does the Democratic Biden administration. But Big Pharma doesn’t. And neither does a set of other rich countries: The United Kingdom, Switzerland, Singapore, Norway, and the European Union.

The conflict came to a head when nurses unions from 28 nations, including National Nurses United in the U.S., the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, its Quebec counterpart, and Brazil’s big nurses union, all demanded an end to what they call “vaccine apartheid.”

In plain language, their formal complaint to the United Nations and the World Trade Organization on Nov. 28, just before the UN’s World Health Organization met in Geneva, Switzerland, demands a waiver of international “intellectual property” trade rules so more vaccines can be shipped and/or produced, worldwide.

And the nurses said the rich nations it fingered are hampering and preventing worldwide distribution of anti-coronavirus vaccines by not forcing drug companies to waive their “intellectual property” patent rights. The Democratic Biden administration said on May 5 it backs the waiver demand, first made last year by India and South Africa.

The WTO, the global trade group which U.S. unions repeatedly point out is slanted in favor of the corporate class, is involved because the vaccines are in world trade, and the WTO would need to approve a temporary patent waiver.  But when Biden joined the waiver request, Big Pharma—the drug makers’ lobby, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association—said “no.”

The unions, in Global Nurses United, said waiving the patent rights would help combat the modern-day plague. The coronavirus has killed 5.23 million people worldwide, including 782,109 in the U.S., since the federal government officially declared a pandemic on March 13, 2020, through Dec. 2.

“Covid-19 (coronavirus) cases continue to soar in numerous parts of the world, while pharmaceutical companies and governments failed to ensure critical treatments and vaccines are distributed equitably in order to respond to the pandemic,” the union coalition, representing 2.5 million health care workers, wrote.

“High-income countries procured upwards of seven billion confirmed vaccine doses, while low-income countries have only been able to procure approximately 300 million doses. This has created what public health advocates around the world have described as ‘vaccine apartheid.’”

Keeping their profits

NNU added those patent rights Big Pharma wants to keep are really in the cause of keeping and boosting corporate profits.

“The maldistribution of vaccines in the face of more than five million deaths, many of them preventable, is a devastating reminder of the deplorable disparity of wealth between the rich nations of the North and the Global South. To refuse to act simply to protect the profits of giant pharmaceutical corporations is unconscionable, inhumane, and must be ended,” said NNU President Deborah Burger, RN. Her union, the top one for U.S. registered nurses, has 190,000 members.

“This unequal distribution of vaccines is not only grossly unjust for the people in low- and moderate-income countries, who remain at high risk for contracting and further transmitting Covid-19, it also provides for the possibility for the development of new variants.” Those new mutations of the virus “pose a dire risk to all people around the world,” added Burger.

Shirley Marshal Díaz Morales, president of Brazil’s 632,000-member Federação Nacional dos Enfermeiros, sounded the same theme about corporate profits in the joint statement NNU put out. The Canadian nurses unions signed the joint complaint but did not issue their own statements.

“It is way past time for the governments of the world to prioritize the health of the people over the profits of multinational corporations by approving the vaccine waiver,” said Díaz Morales.

“Nurses around the world have cared for patients throughout this pandemic and have seen unbelievable suffering and death, and so many nurses themselves have gotten ill and paid the ultimate sacrifice. It is disgraceful that almost half the world’s population still does not have access to the Covid-19 vaccine. As long as this situation persists, none of us is safe.”

WHO’s chief agrees with the Global Nurses United’s demand. So does the UN’s top health official, NNU says.

In a one-paragraph response during his press conference at the end of WHO’s meeting in Geneva, Switzerland on Dec. 1, Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared: “I call on all member states (nations) to choose to remove every barrier to scaling up vaccine production, by sharing technology and know-how, and by supporting a waiver of intellectual property rights.”

The UN’s health chief, Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, also agreed.  “The nurses’ core demand is one I share,” she said. Nations “have a collective responsibility to use all available means to facilitate faster access to vaccines, including by introducing a temporary waiver of relevant intellectual property rights under the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights.”

“Nurses and health care workers have been on the front line keeping us safe and have witnessed the most painful and heart-wrenching effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Their evident commitment to the right to physical and mental health provides them with moral authority,” Dr. Mofokeng added.

But when Biden backed the patent waiver demand in May, to get more vaccines to people in the world’s developing nations, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association refused.

Its CEO, Stephen Ubl, went even farther than that. He charged, with no proof, that waiving patent rights to vaccines would actually hamper the worldwide response to the pandemic, possibly by introducing “counterfeit vaccines.” He did not address drug company profits from the vaccines—or the billions of dollars the drug makers got from the federal government to rush their development.

“The Biden administration has taken an unprecedented step that will undermine our global response to the pandemic and compromise safety,” Ubl charged. “This will sow confusion between public and private partners, further weaken already strained supply chains and foster the proliferation of counterfeit vaccines. This change in longstanding American policy will not save lives.” And a waiver will also “hand over American innovations to countries looking to undermine our leadership in biomedical discovery.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.