Médecins Sans Frontières criticises EU’s ‘empty promises’ for Covid-19 vaccine equity

Médecins Sans Frontières criticises EU’s ‘empty promises’ for Covid-19 vaccine equity
Credit: Belga

The non-profit organisation Médecins sans frontières has criticised the European Union for what it says are “empty promises” regarding equal distribution of Covid-19 vaccines across the world.

“The EU likes to portray itself as a champion of vaccine equity, but the gap between those beautiful words and its actions is embarrassingly wide,” said Dr. Christos Christou, president of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), in a statement.

The criticism comes in the wake of EU Commission President Von der Leyen’s State of the European Union address on 15 September, in which she underlined the importance of global access to vaccines in order to end the coronavirus pandemic.

But MSF says such words are little more than hot air.

“The EU continues to block initiatives to help other countries produce their own vaccines and therapeutics and has not shared promised vaccine doses on time,” said Christou.

“Consequently, many countries are facing dramatic shortages of COVID-19 vaccines. In low-income countries, only 1.1 percent of the population has received at least one dose.”

MSF isn’t alone in its criticism of the EU.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has been calling on both vaccine manufacturers and Member States to better support the international COVAX initiative, a programme aimed at securing at least 1.8 billion vaccine doses for 92 low and middle income countries.

The WHO has asked Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers to make half of their production of doses available to COVAX this year.

WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus denounced the “scandalous inequality” of access to vaccines in the world, which he said “perpetuates the pandemic.”

According to the European Commission, the EU has exported about half of the vaccines produced in Europe to other countries in the world in addition to donating around €3 billion to the COVAX programme.

But MSF says that “by pre-booking billions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines outside of COVAX, the EU and other high-income countries have side-lined the mechanism. As a result, COVAX has been left without purchase options and highly reliant on ad-hoc charitable donations of doses.”

Complicating matters is the EU’s refusal to recognise WHO-approved vaccines produced in these lower and middle-income countries when it comes to its Digital Covid-19 Certificate, which MSF says only further compounds global inequities and vaccine hesitancy.

“The EU seems set on prioritising the interests of its own pharmaceutical industry over delivering the widest health benefits and meeting the global medical needs caused by the pandemic,” said Christou.

“As a result, a large part of the global population remains unvaccinated, potentially allowing new variants of the virus to emerge, which may undermine vaccine efficacy and spread to Europe and beyond, spurring the need to ensure access to therapeutics at the same time.”

So far, COVAX has distributed just 250 million vaccines, far short of its two billion dose target.

And while MSF acknowledges that the EU has stepped up its commitment to share doses, they say that more than 90 percent of the doses promised remain undelivered as the end of the year fast approaches.

They say that the EU is also making matters worse when it comes to the debates over sharing technologies and intellectual property rights for vaccines.

“It has not openly supported initiatives at the WHO for the voluntary sharing of these technologies and intellectual property rights,” MSF said in a statement.

“Most famously, the EU is one of the main opponents of, and has actively derailed the negotiation process towards, the TRIPS waiver, a proposal at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to allow countries to temporarily lift certain intellectual property rights to produce lifesaving COVID-19 medical tools such as vaccines.”

The non-profit says that if the EU is to truly promote vaccine equity, they need to stop blocking the TRIPS waiver at the WTO, ensure vaccine technologies are shared in lower and middle income countries, provide financial and technical assistance for production and supply, and speed up the donations to COVAX.

“It’s time for the EU to finally get serious about making COVID-19 vaccines accessible wherever they are needed,” the organisation said.

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