In the health field, the WTO has more power than the WHO

By Agora of the Inhabitants of the Earth

The world upside down

The aberration is obvious. On 16 October, the WTO (World Trade Organisation), an institution independent of the UN, rejected the proposal to suspend WTO rules on patents for medical tests, treatments and vaccines in the fight against Covid-19. Submitted by South Africa and India, the proposal was also defended by the WHO (World Health Organisation), the UN agency responsible for health. As is well known, patents on life were authorised for the first time in history by the US Supreme Court in 1990 and then by the European Union in 1998, despite strong opposition throughout the world from a very large number of civil society associations in revolt against the commercialisation and privatisation of life. Patents grant private companies the right to exclusive ownership and use for profit for 20 years of living materials (and their products, such as medicines, vaccines, etc.). This is a predatory monopolisation of life that the public authorities have offered to private capital in the name-alibi of science! And, in fact, the history of the last 30 years shows that patents have been and remain the key instrument for the financial enrichment of pharmaceutical companies, the privatisation of health systems and the consequent dismantling of public social security and health rights In this context, it is not surprising that social inequalities in the health coverage of populations between rich and impoverished countries and between social classes have only increased. The Covid-19 pandemic confirms that the policies put in place to date have not prevented the worsening of inequalities at all levels.

Admittedly, a great responsibility falls to the various forms of “vaccine-based nationalism”. The most violent of these are currently manifesting themselves in Trump’s United States, which is, for example, responsible for crimes against humanity in the case of last May’s purchase of the entire available stock of the drug Gilead Sciences (one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies in terms of market capitalisation), considered an effective remedy for a rapid recovery from Covid-19.  Trump made the purchase with the explicit intention of guaranteeing the drug to US citizens, knowing that by doing so it would prevent access to other populations around the world until September/October.  And what can we say when the rich countries (15% of the world’s population) – led by the United States and the European Union – have already signed agreements with the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies for billions of euros as an advance purchase of 60% of the estimated vaccine doses available in 2021 and 2022, leaving less than 40% for the remaining 85% of the world’s inhabitants? This is a far cry from Pope Francis’ exhortation for more global brotherhood. This is no longer medical security nationalism. It is simply a policy of violence and injustice against the right to health of the populations of impoverished countries.

This policy is rooted in the abandonment of the principle of universal rights to life as the fundamental inspiration for living together and the recognition of essential goods and services for life as global public commons. The principle and recognition have been the basis for the rule of law and the welfare society and the obligation of states to guarantee universal rights through the safeguarding, care and promotion of global public common goods.

This policy has a name. It is called the policy of market access to goods and services essential for life in an equitable and affordable manner. It is an integral part of the system of “global economic governance” that has been in place since the 1980s as a substitute for the system of public government. The substitution was made in the name of the theses “govern without governments”, “less state”, “forget governments, company rules OK”. 

Equitable access at affordable prices to health, water, food, housing, transport no longer belongs to the world of universal rights in equality in dignity and justice. It is the son of a vision of the world and of life that is essentially economic, commercial, utilitarian, inspired by rivalry and exclusion.

The major multilateral international cooperation programme to combat Covid-19 called ACT, launched in April-May by the WHO and for which the European Union has taken the lead in collaboration with other States, the World Bank, the World Economic Forum and foundations (such as the Melissa and Bill Gates Foundation), has the explicit objective of ensuring access to Covid-19 therapy for all in an equitable and affordable manner. Enforcement of the patent system is the central focus of the programme. The two lead agencies, CEPI (Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations) and GAVI (Global Alliance on Vaccines and Immunisation), major examples of the public-private partnership that marks the overall architecture of the programme, are there to manoeuvre the patent system.

The proposal by India and South Africa (like the many calls published since April for the promotion of Covid-19 vaccines as global public goods addressed to the UN and the world’s major powers) represented a serious and justified attempt to free the global fight against Covid-19 from submission to the private interests of the most powerful states and private global industrial, commercial and financial groups.

The European Union, the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Norway…. voted against. In their eyes, patents are worth more than people’s health!

Public opinion has known for a long time that the United States cannot be counted on to fight against environmental and climatic catastrophe, to eradicate impoverishment, to build peace. Even less can we count on the multinational companies. It is a pity that the current European political, economic and techno-scientific leaders believe above all in the imperial logic of trade, technology and finance and not in the rights and security of life of the world’s population. It is time to work for the liberation of humanity from the domination of today “owners  of life”.