TWN Info Service on Health Issues (Apr20/07)
9 April 2020
Third World Network

WHO DG condemns "racist" remarks on testing COVID-19 vaccines in Africa; raises patent-related initiatives

SUNS #9097 Wednesday 8 April 2020

Geneva, 7 Apr (D. Ravi Kanth) -- The World Health Organization Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has condemned in the strongest terms certain remarks made by a "couple of scientists" that new vaccines for addressing the COVID-19 disease must be tested in Africa.

Such remarks, he said, are not only "racist" but also demonstrate their "colonial hangover".

At a virtual press conference on 6 April, Dr Tedros, for the first time, also highlighted several patent-related initiatives.

The DG said that the WHO will make an announcement later this week about "a mechanism" that will include "senior people from the North and South to work out the details on how to accelerate production of new vaccines and how to ensure "equitable distribution" among all countries.

COVID-19 has already claimed more than 75,000 lives around the world with a rising number of new cases on an exponential scale.

At the end of the virtual press conference, the WHO DG tore into comments made by a "couple of scientists" for insisting that Africa should be the "testing ground" for new vaccines to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Without naming the scientists, who had made these comments during a debate on the French TV channel LCI on 3 April, the WHO DG said he was "appalled."

At a time when international solidarity is needed most for addressing the rampaging COVID-19 pandemic, "this kind of racist remarks would not help and it is against solidarity," Dr Tedros said with an angry tone.

"Africa cannot and will not be a testing ground for any vaccine," he said categorically.

The WHO "will follow all the rules for testing any vaccines or therapeutics in exactly the same route - whether it is Europe, Africa."

"We will use the same protocol and if there is a need to be tested elsewhere, to treat the human being the same way - equally the same way (as we are doing under the Solidarity trials)", Dr Tedros said repeatedly.

"And the hangover from the colonial mentality has to stop," the WHO DG said, insisting that "the WHO will not allow this to happen."

"It was a disgrace actually and appalling to hear (such remarks) during (the) 21st century from the scientists," Dr Tedros said.

"We (the WHO) condemn in the strongest terms possible but we assure you that this will not happen in Africa and will not happen elsewhere in any country," he said in unambiguous terms.

"Proper protocols will be followed and human beings will be treated as human beings because we are all human beings," the DG said.


Amid growing international calls, particularly from the civil society organizations (CSOs), on the predatory use of patent rights for COVID-19 medicines like remdisivir, the WHO DG spoke for the first time at the press conference about patent-related initiatives.

Dr Tedros indicated that "more than 70 countries have joined WHO's Solidarity Trial to accelerate the search for an effective treatment. And about 20 institutions and companies are racing to develop a vaccine."

According to various reports, the development of a new vaccine to combat COVID-19 could take between 12 to 18 months.

But the US pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson has signalled that it is ready to test its new vaccine for COVID-19 soon for clinical trials.

At his daily briefing on Sunday, President Trump praised Johnson & Johnson, which was recently embroiled in the deadly opioid crisis in the US, for developing the new vaccine for COVID-19.

Against this backdrop, Dr Tedros reiterated the WHO's commitment to ensure new "medicines and vaccines" as and when they are developed, and that they will be "shared equitably with all countries and people."

He thanked the Medicines Patent Pool and the Geneva-based UNITAID for their initiative announced on 3 April to include "medicines and diagnostics for COVID-19 in their licensing pool."

[UNITAID was established by France, Chile, Brazil, Norway, and the United Kingdom in Geneva in September 2006 to collaborate on the implementation of the International Drug Purchase Facility (IDPF). The Facility was proposed as an innovative mechanism to accelerate access to high-quality drugs and diagnostics for AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria patients. WHO has agreed to assist UNITAID by serving as the host organization.]

The WHO DG also praised "the President of Costa Rica, President Carlos Alvarado, and the Health Minister, Daniel Salas, for their proposal to create a pool of rights to tests, medicines and vaccines, with free access or licensing on reasonable and affordable terms for all countries."

Dr Tedros said he will "support this proposal, and we are working with Costa Rica to finalize the details."

The DG expressed his grave concern that "poorer countries and fragile economies stand to face the biggest shock from this pandemic, and leaving anyone unprotected will only prolong the health crisis and harm economies more".

Therefore, said Dr Tedros, "all countries, companies and research institutions" must support open data, open science and open collaboration so that all people can enjoy the benefits of science and research.

Towards the end of his press conference, he came back to the patents-related issues. Dr Tedros said that the development of vaccines will be addressing two issues.

He indicated that the WHO will announce this week "a big initiative to accelerate R&D and production of vaccines and design mechanisms for equitable distribution of the vaccines."

Dr Tedros admitted for the first time that there will be a problem unless countries and companies break the "barriers" for equitable distribution of the products such as new vaccines or therapeutics for COVID-19.

Therefore, "we need to address the problem ahead of time," he said, emphasizing that "we need to address the problem of access or challenges to access (of new drugs and vaccines for COVID-19) ahead of time."

"That's why we will put together a mechanism and we will appoint senior people from the North and South that will work out the details on how they can accelerate the production, but at the same time how they can ensure equitable distribution and solidarity is very important here," Dr Tedros reiterated.

"When a vaccine or medicine is ready, we have to (be) able to deliver it all over the world," he emphasized.

More importantly, "there should not be a divide between haves and have-nots," Dr Tedros emphasized, arguing that "if we say solidarity then solidarity should be in its full form."

The DG said he hopes "each and every human being will go for that kind of solidarity."

However, Dr Tedros remained silent on the dire threats issued by the US President Trump against the US company 3M in China not to supply France, Germany, and Canada among others.

The WHO DG also did not comment on Trump's threat of sanctions against India if it failed to provide huge quantities of hydroxychloroquine, a malarial drug also used for lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

Dr Tedros has admitted that hydroxychloroquine is being used for clinical trials along with a combination of drugs under the so-called Solidarity trials.

Dr Tedros has also not commented on the drug remdisivir that is being clinically tested under Solidarity trials. The drug remdisivir is developed by US pharmaceutical company Gilead and was initially used in the clinical trials for Ebola.

Amid the growing international uproar, including by international civil society organizations such as MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres) and the Third World Network among others against Gilead for claiming extraordinary patent rights for remdisivir, the Director-General has not commented against Gilead's predatory methods.

In short, Dr Tedros' remarks on patent-related issues involving new drugs and vaccines for COVID-19 as and when they prove their efficacy after clinical trials, seem to be a step in the right direction.

But going by the predatory practices of the pharmaceutical behemoths who had revealed time and time again that super-profits from their patented drugs matter more than saving lives, Dr Tedros' assurances appear not to be adequate.