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Ensuring Justice for Humanity by Addressing Pandemics as a Moral and Legal Obligation: A Call for a Legally Binding Pandemic Treaty

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As churches and church-related organisations engaged in humanitarian, development and advocacy work in the world, we are appalled by the vaccine apartheid created by profit-seeking behavior and selfserving practices that undermine equal access to COVID-19 vaccines. We believe that the global community can and must do more to save lives, improve the well-being of all human beings, promote peace and ensure the realization of all human rights.

Despite the efforts of the international community to produce vaccines in a record time, and to create principles and mechanisms for equitable access and distribution, we are observing a shameful moral and political failure to reverse the vaccine divide and to ensure no one is left behind. Unfortunately, although the COVAX Facility was created to sort out an important gap in terms of pandemic preparedness and response, some members of the COVAX Advanced Market Commitment (AMC) are working outside the mechanism and using the pandemic for political purposes, which deviate the mechanism from its core principles and goals.

While the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented, major pandemics are not a new phenomenon. Even if the world does manage to end the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot simply ignore the fact that with the number of new infectious diseases rising fast, some exacerbated by climate change, the next pandemic could be just around the corner. It is imperative that governments and multilateral organizations recognize and embrace knowledge acquired through past pandemics and consider issues such as pandemic preparedness, response, and learnings.

More importantly, there is a need for political will to deal with vaccines as public goods that are at the benefit of all not of a chosen few, as vaccines have been developed with public money. They are public goods and must be dealt with as public goods. However, our past and recent history has shown that political will is not enough. Little or no attempts to hold governments accountable for their obligations with respect to the right to health were made. It is now time to think of a binding global framework to hold governments accountable to human rights norms in context of pandemics.

At the World Health Assembly on 31 May 2021, a process towards an international pandemic treaty was discussed. The 194 members of the World Health Organization (WHO) have adopted the decision to discuss a new international treaty on pandemics at a special session to be held in November 2021.
Based on this, the ACT Alliance:

Recognizes that the deepening of inequalities during the COVID-19 pandemic, and more recently of inequalities related to the unfair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, is putting humanity at a crossroad, and increasing the divide between rich and poor countries.

Acknowledges that the issue of COVID-19 vaccine access is an unprecedented issue with deep ethical underpinnings, and that we cannot deal with vaccine access without highlighting our shared moral obligation, as humanity, to attend to our fellow human beings, wherever they are, and whoever they are.

Recognizes that pandemics are not a new phenomenon and that solutions were successfully applied to equally troubling crises such as HIV/AIDS, Zika and Ebola. Political will is needed to set commercial interests behind and move towards a common and rights-based approach to vaccine production, distribution, and access.

Affirms the need to address pandemic preparedness, response, and learnings by strengthening the role of the COVAX Facility as part of a holistic policy package, which also means learning from past pandemics and applying the knowledge acquired previously, as well as the unique role faith actors play in addressing pandemics.

Affirms that multi-stakeholder action can enable equal access to life-saving drugs through collaborative programs and the loosening of patents, amongst other actions such as sharing vaccine (or other medical) know-how.

Reaffirms that health is a primary responsibility of governments and that the human right to the highest attainable standard of health cannot be realized without robust and long-term investments, not only in basic public health systems but in research and high technology, as well as immediate comparable action.

ACT Alliance, therefore, calls Governments and multilateral institutions to urgently:

• Reverse the vaccine divide, to avoid loss of lives as well as loss of potential of those that are living with the medium- and long-term effects associated to the COVID-19 recovery, especially historically marginalized groups.

• Share vaccine doses and financial resources to ensure everyone everywhere has immediate access to vaccines, and guarantee affordable prices, fair allocation and prioritization while also committing at least 5% of overall supply to equitable vaccine distribution and investing in public health systems and social protection systems that tackle the social determinants of health.

• Ensure no groups are left behind by supporting a vaccine storage and distribution system that reaches those hardest to reach, especially those that do not have ID cards and/or lack access to social protection systems; and

• Create a more robust form of global pandemic preparedness that protects the health and livelihoods of all and support a COVAX initiative that establishes active social listening and recognizes the fundamental role played by civil society actors in COVID-19 mechanisms.

** ACT Alliance urges the 194 members of the World Health Organization (WHO) to immediately adopt the decision to create a new international treaty on pandemics at its special session to be held in November 2021, in order to hold governments accountable to their decisions and actions around pandemics. This treaty must be legally binding and considers criminal sanctions against those that violate the treaty and that put the whole humanity at risk.**

In this context, the treaty needs to be associated with an institution or mechanism that does not allow space for impunity and/or be the resort to imposing sanctions without privileges such as veto power. All processes related to the development of the treaty and its technical content must involve civil society and take into account the differentiated role civil society and faith actors play in the promotion of health and wellbeing.

Rudelmar Bueno de Faria
General Secretary, ACT Alliance