Nurses Worldwide Call on UN to Stop 'Vaccine Apartheid'

Roni Robbins

November 30, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Disparity in the acquisition and distribution of COVID vaccines in low- and moderate-income countries is only going to get worse amid the new Omicron variant, leading an alliance of global nurses to call for immediate action.

National Nurses United (NNU) is among a coalition of nurses' unions representing more than 2.5 million healthcare workers from 28 countries worldwide that has filed a complaint with the United Nations (UN) alleging human rights violations related to inequity in the manufacture and delivery of COVID vaccines to disadvantaged countries. The complaint was coordinated by the union Global Nurses United and Progressive International, launched last year to unite, organize, and mobilize progressive forces worldwide.

Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN

"This is tearing me up. No one is safe until everyone is safe," Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN, co-president of NNU, told Medscape Medical News. The nurses' complaint alleges that the European Union (EU) along with the United Kingdom, Norway, Switzerland, and Singapore are preventing vaccines from getting into the arms of citizens in those countries and are favoring pharmaceutical company profits over human life.

The EU and offending countries, according to the complaint, have blocked a temporary waiver of corporate pharmaceutical intellectual property rights under the World Trade Organization's (WTO's) agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), the complaint states. The South African and Indian governments proposed the waiver at the WTO last year to speed up the manufacture and distribution of COVID vaccines to low- and moderate-income countries, according to the complaint. More than 45% of the world's population still has not received even one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, the complaint alleges.

"These countries have violated our rights and the rights of our patients ― and caused the loss of countless lives [through] continued opposition to the TRIPS waiver...resulting in the violation of human rights of peoples across the world," according to an NNU press release.

"COVID-19 cases continue to soar in numerous parts of the world, while pharmaceutical companies and governments have failed to ensure that critical treatments and vaccines are distributed equitably in order to respond to the pandemic," the nurses' unions wrote. "High-income countries have procured upwards of 7 billion confirmed vaccine doses, while low-income countries have only been able to procure approximately 300 million doses. This has created what public health advocates around the world have described as 'vaccine apartheid.' "

Cortez said of the lower-income countries, "We have been sending them vaccines. They should not rely on charity. They should be able to manufacturer their own vaccines."

The nurses' complaint addressed Tlaleng Mofokeng, MBChB, a physician and the UN's Special Rapporteur on Physical and Mental Health, calling on her to lead an investigation into the nurses' alleged human rights violations. The WTO Ministerial Conference in Geneva at which the issue could have been discussed this week was postponed because of the Omicron variant.

"We are hoping whenever they reconvene, the committee will act on this under the leadership of Dr Mofokeng," Cortez said.

Mofokeng supported the nurses' position, according to the release. "The nurses' core demand is one I share: States have a collective responsibility to use all available means to facilitate faster access to vaccines, including by introducing a temporary waiver of relevant intellectual property rights under the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement)," she said. "Nurses and health care workers have been on the front line keeping us safe and have witnessed the most painful and heart-wrenching effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their evident commitment to the right to physical and mental health provides them with moral authority."

US President Joe Biden endorsed the waiver in May, but the coordinated campaign by the nurses' unions may be able to convince the UN to take the effort to the next level, Cortez said. "Hopefully we will create a louder voice and have a much bigger impact" and persuade the UN committee that it "should be looking out for the welfare of the world."

For more news, follow Medscape on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.