Just days ahead of the World Health Assembly that will see virtual participation of health ministers from around the world, an international call has gone out for a “people’s vaccine” for use against the novel coronavirus (Covid-19).

Over 140 world leaders and experts, including Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, President of South Africa and Chair of the African Union, Cyril Ramaphos, and former Prime Minister of the UK Gordon Brown, have signed an open letter calling on all governments to unite behind a “people’s vaccine”. The letter demands that all vaccines, treatments and tests be patent-free, mass produced, distributed fairly and made available to all people, in all countries, free of charge. The WHA is scheduled for May 18.

The letter echoes vociferous campaigns by humanitarian and health advocacy groups that have also been calling for equitable access to Covid treatments. And it comes against the backdrop of some governments reportedly wooing companies away from other countries to corner the medical products they make. Interestingly, just days ago, the world also saw voluntary licence agreements sealed on prospective Covid drug remdesivir, signed between the innovator and companies in India and Pakistan. The deal irked public health experts as such alliances restrict the free movement of effective low-cost drugs to the patients, anywhere in the world.

Also signing-up on this ambitious call are economists and health advocates such as the Chair of the Elders and former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, Nobel Laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, Dainius Puras, and former Special Envoy to the Secretary General of the UN on AIDS and former Health Secretary in India, JVR Prasada Rao, among others.

‘Science must be shared’

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa pointed out, “All the science must be shared between governments. Nobody should be pushed to the back of the vaccine queue because of where they live or what they earn,” he added. Pakistan PM Imran Khan pointed out that, “No leader can rest easy until every individual in every nation is able to rapidly access a vaccine free of charge.”

“Diplomatic platitudes are not enough — we need legal guarantees, and we need them now,” said former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark, pointing out that the world cannot carry on business as usual.

Coordinated by UNAIDS and Oxfam, the letter warns that the world cannot afford monopolies and competition to stand in the way of the universal need to save lives. About $8 billion had been pledged earlier this month at the European Union’s international pledging marathon towards universal research and access. But as the race to find a bouquet of drugs and vaccines is underway, the world leaders called for a mandatory worldwide pooling of patents and sharing of Covid-19-related knowledge, data and technologies to ensure that any nation can produce or buy affordable doses of vaccines, treatments and tests.