Access to vaccines is a human right


In his latest blog post, Professor Karl Blanchet remarks how the principle of universal access to vaccines should be considered a human right.

On 10th December, we mark Human Rights Day. This year’s theme, “EQUALITY – Reducing inequalities, advancing human rights”, relates to the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The principle of equality, the intention of “leaving no one behind“, lies at the core of human rights. This means treating everyone, including the most vulnerable, without any form of discrimination.

In the context of global health – which is my field – equality translates into equal and fair access to healthcare. Yet, the arrival of COVID-19 almost two years ago has aggravated the systemic inequality between societies and countries and has highlighted disparities in getting access to healthcare. The impact of the pandemic, combined with other intertwined factors including conflict and climate change, led to the first rise in extreme poverty in two decades.

Studies from several countries have shown that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionally affected vulnerable populations everywhere. In a paper I recently co-authored with fellow academics, we focused on European countries and argued that the most pressing priority is to ensure vaccine equity and maximize uptake in migrant, ethnic minorities and other excluded or hard-to-reach communities as an essential part of their inclusion in National Response Plans. Such measures should not be seen as a quick fix but rather a model for ongoing engagement and integration within the framework of universal health coverage.

On the issue of COVID-19 vaccines, Nobel Laureate and economist Professor Joseph Stiglitz recently remarked in front of the Human Rights Council that access to vaccines “is almost part of a right to life, and yet, access to the vaccines, while is very easy in the United States and other advanced countries, is extraordinarily difficult in emerging economies and almost impossible in most developing countries”. As of today, while 55.3 per cent of the world population has received at least one vaccine dose, only 6.3 per cent of people in low-income countries have received at least a dose.

As I have highlighted in an interview I gave just days before the discovery of the variant Omicron, the most recent variant of COVID-19 reported to WHO on 24 November, western countries posing barriers to vaccine access to low- and middle-income countries means we are all bound to encounter new variants.

At the end of October 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) said less than 10 per cent of the 54 countries in Africa were on course to hit the target of vaccinating 40 per cent of their population by the end of 2021. Then, Omicron came along, highlighting how fragile we all are when large parts of the world’s populations do not have fair access to the vaccine. We all witnessed the panicked response to the new variant, but we need to remind ourselves that no one is safe until everyone is safe. It is unbelievable that this principle of universal access to vaccines is not yet recognised as a human right.

So far, initiatives such as COVAX have not managed to achieve fair access to the vaccine. This is not because the mechanism was bad, but because governments have not kept their promises. The potential failure of COVAX would represent the failure of global health to function in a fair and truly global way.

On 1 December, the  World Health Organisation (WHO) member countries agreed to launch an international process to prevent and control future pandemics. I hope this new pact will help countries move away from what WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu aptly described as a “me-first” approach.

Global challenges such as the COVID 19 pandemic and climate change are the ultimate test for humanity to act as one, go beyond national territories and personal interests and value humanity. If we fail, we will face unthinkable consequences, and the COVID-19 vaccination response will remain as a testament to our collective incapacity to do the right thing for all.