More than two million nurses from 28 countries across the globe filed a complaint Monday calling on the United Nations to investigate the rich countries that are blocking a proposed patent waiver for coronavirus vaccines, an appeal that came as public health experts raced to understand the newly detected Omicron variant.
"Continued opposition to the TRIPS waiver is resulting in the violation of human rights of peoples across the world."
In a detailed letter addressed to Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Physical and Mental Health, dozens of nursing unions noted that "the end of this pandemic is nowhere in sight" as "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."
"This unequal distribution of vaccines is not only grossly unjust for the people in low- and moderate-income countries who remain at high risk for contracting and further transmitting Covid-19, it also provides for the possibility for the development of new variants, some of which may be resistant to the current available vaccines," the filing reads. "The development and spread of new variants pose a dire risk to all people around the world."
The complaint specifically targets the European Union, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, and Singapore, wealthy nations that have stonewalled the patent waiver at the World Trade Organization (WTO), defying the will of a majority of that institution's member countries.
By blocking the patent waiver, the small group of rich nations is "endangering millions of lives around the world," the nurses declare in a petition accompanying their formal U.N. complaint.
"This is a clear violation of our right to healthof nurses, caregivers, and patients. So we are now taking them to court," the petition continues. "We demand an urgent investigation into the obstruction of the waiver by these Covid-19 criminals."
The WTO was set to consider the patent waiver once more at its biannual ministerial conference this week, but the meeting was postponed indefinitely due to the spread of the Omicron variant.
Coordinated by Global Nurses United and Progressive International, the nurses' U.N. complaint was submitted as scientists and political leaders worldwide grappled with the potential threat posed by Omicron, the fifth coronavirus strain to be designated a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization (WHO). First detected in Botswana, cases of the variant have since been identified in South Africa, Australia, Israel, the U.K., Canada, and elsewhere.
On Sunday, the WHO issued an update noting that "it is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible (e.g., more easily spread from person to person) compared to other variants, including Delta." The organization also said there's not yet enough evidence to determine whether Omicron causes more severe disease than other variants, or whether it is resistant to existing vaccines.
"Studies currently underway or underway shortly include assessments of transmissibility, severity of infection (including symptoms), performance of vaccines and diagnostic tests, and effectiveness of treatments," the WHO said.
In its complaint on Sunday, the coalition of nursing unions argues that the proliferation of variants is a predictable outcome of rich nations' refusal to "distribute vaccines and treatments equitably to the vast majority of people of low- and moderate-income countries."
"Nurses and other healthcare workers have been on the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic response, and we have witnessed the staggering numbers of deaths and the immense suffering caused by political inaction," the filing states. "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.'"
"It is now clear: Continued opposition to the TRIPS waiver is resulting in the violation of human rights of peoples across the world," the document continues, citing Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. "These countries have violated our rights and the rights of our patientsand caused the loss of countless livesof nurses and other caregivers and those we have cared for."