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Global Unions join Biden, EU Parliament in call for urgent waiver on vaccine patents to tackle dangerous new variants

news Press Release 29 Nov 2021

Geneva, London, 29 November 2021 - The Council of Global Union (CGU), representing over 200 million workers, has urged UK, Switzerland, Germany and the EU Commission to stop blocking efforts to waive vaccine patents. The largest council of global unions believe action must and can be taken this week to urgently enable vaccine production in the Global South.

The demand from unions for a World Trade Organisation (WTO) waiver on intellectual property rights for Covid vaccines comes as the new Omicron variant emerges from countries which have been denied the right to produce their own vaccines. It also comes amidst renewed momentum and urgency from world leaders, with President Biden and the European Parliament - the only EU institution elected by citizens - reiterating their calls for intellectual property waivers on vaccines.

Governments were set to meet at the WTO Ministerial Conference in Geneva this week, now postponed because of risks posed by Omicron, to decide on whether a waiver on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) - the world's most comprehensive multilateral agreement on intellectual property - would finally be approved for Covid vaccines and supplies.

To secure the waiver, the TRIPS Council can be convened at any time to put forward a written proposal for the WTO General Council to formalise. Such a waiver was first proposed by South Africa and India in October 2020 and now has the backing of over 100 nations. This proposal has been blocked by only a handful of wealthy countries including the UK, Switzerland and Germany, where major pharmaceutical companies are headquartered.

Despite the postponement, governments can still take immediate action to approve the waiver this week. WTO Director General Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala highlighted that negotiations must continue and delegates “should be fully empowered to close as many gaps as possible” as “this new variant reminds us once again of the urgency of the work we are charged with.”

Unions believe that if the UK, Switzerland and Germany stand down from their opposition to the TRIPS waiver, the lifting of patents, alongside undisclosed information protection and technology transfer, we can vaccinate the world. The CGU cites an Oxford University study which demonstrates a pathway for the global community to establish regional centers capable of producing eight billion doses of vaccine by May 2022 to help end the pandemic.

Stephen Cotton, Chair of the CGU, and General Secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), said:  “I speak directly to the Heads of State for the UK, Germany and Switzerland when I say this: your decisions are putting millions of lives and livelihoods at risk. The world is watching you, as panic and anxiety spread at the rise of a new variant that may have been prevented if you had acted sooner. The waiver can be agreed this week, you must act now or forever hold the preventable deaths of millions more on your conscience.”

 Over 4 million people have died from Covid-19 since the waiver was first proposed. The Biden Administration, which has given away more doses than all other governments combined, made clear in a statement last week that the TRIPS  waiver is an urgent and essential next step to end the pandemic.

Rosa Pavanelli, General Secretary of Public Services International (PSI), added:  “A handful of leaders are putting the interests of the pharma lobby ahead of the frontline workers they once applauded. This is an insult to their sacrifice. If the leaders of the UK, Switzerland and EU nations want to break the cycle of lockdowns and travel blocks, then they must immediately stop blocking the TRIPS waiver proposal so no barriers stand in the way of expanding vaccine production and quashing new variants.”

See full CGU statement here: Global workers call for universal access to Covid-19 vaccines and health products and technologies, governments must act urgently

Contact details: Shona Karp / / 07939588620  

Notes to editors

The International Monetary Fund recently warned that inadequate access to vaccines could lead to global GDP losses of $5.3 trillion over the next five years. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical corporations are now making over $1,000,000 in pre-tax profits every 15 minutes. In the UK, Astrazeneca announced plans to shift to a for-profit model for their vaccine, despite the fact that 97% of the funds for its development came from public sources. 

About the CGU The Council of Global Unions (CGU) is the partnership between the International Trade Union Confederation, Global Union Federations and the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD that represents over 200 million workers. The current Chair of the CGU is Stephen Cotton (ITF) and the Secretary is Sharan Burrow (ITUC). 

About ITF The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is a democratic, affiliate-led federation recognised as the world’s leading transport authority. We fight passionately to improve working lives; connecting almost 700 trade unions from 147 countries to secure rights, equality and justice for their members. ITF is the voice for nearly 20 million working women and men in the transport industry globally.  

About PSI Public Services International (PSI) is a Global Union Federation of more than 700 trade unions representing 30 million workers in 154 countries. We bring their voices to the UN, ILO, WHO and other regional and global organisations. PSI defends trade union and workers' rights and fights for universal access to quality public services. 

Additional information on the vaccine roll-out:

  • Less than 1 in 10 people in low-income countries have received a single Covid-19 vaccine dose. On 26 November, the World Health Organization called out the ‘scandal’ of a vaccine roll-out where six times more booster shots are being administered around the world daily than primary doses in low-income countries.
  • There have been serious problems with the limited vaccines being made available to regions like Africa, with countries receiving doses which are out-of-date or due to expire before they can be administered. Earlier this year, 450,000 doses had to be destroyed in countries across Africa, and public concerns have contributed to vaccine hesitancy.
  • Lower income countries are supposed to be covered by a vaccine scheme, Covax. However, this scheme had limited capacity from the start; it only envisaged a fifth of people in the countries it covered by the end of 2021 in the first place. And it has fallen short, delivering just over a quarter of that limited target so far.  
  • On 26 November, the US’ President Biden called on countries due to meet at the WTO to agree to waive intellectual property protections on Covid-19 vaccines. Earlier in the week, the European Parliament passed a resolution supporting a TRIPS waiver.
  • A former director of chemistry at Moderna, producer of one of the first approved vaccines, has said that with the right blueprint and technical advice, a modern factory should be able to produce the vaccine in, at most, three to four months.
  • The failure to take the right action globally to tackle the pandemic has opened the door to new and more dangerous variants, which are already impacting industry, including in countries standing in the way of a waiver. In aviation, for example, when the Alpha variant hit, total passenger capacity on flights between Germany and the UK fell by 76%. The industry is facing projected passenger operating revenue losses of between USD 314 and 324 billion, and each new variant worsens the damage and undercuts recovery.