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confidentially speaking

The Africa Confidential Blog

  • 28th May 2020

A vote for the People's Vaccine

Blue Lines

The overwhelming vote, backed by African and European delegations, at the World Health Organisation assembly on 18-20 May for coronavirus vaccines to be classed as global public goods – universally available under pooled patents – boosts organisations such as GAVI (the vaccines alliance) and the UN system.

It was a blow for the United States, whose ambassador to Geneva Andrew Bremberg was trying to dilute the resolution calling for a 'people's vaccine' as well as pushing out Tedros Adhanom Gebreyesus as Director General of the WHO. Neither demand had much support. The assembly resolution provided for an independent assessment of the pandemic response by the WHO and the wider international system.

US officials argued the resolution would take away the profit incentive from pharmaceutical companies. It was, they said, 'a misinterpretation of international trade obligations' which would discourage 'new drug development and expanded access to medicine'. Such detailed legalistic argument contrasted sharply with US President Donald Trump's critique of the WHO, threatening to quit the organisation within 30 days unless it made unspecified reforms.

That left a door open for China to enter with the promise of an extra $2 billion for the WHO and a pledge that it would make a vaccine available as a global public good. China contributes about a tenth of the US subscription to WHO of around $400 million. This would be a net gain for WHO should Beijing make good on its promise.