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Will self-interest motivate Ireland to be stronger on vaccine equity?

On 29 November, in a joint statement, the Department of Health and the Department of Foreign Affairs announced that a consignment of 500,000 Covid-19 vaccines donated by Ireland arrived in Nigeria.

The Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly noted that this is Ireland’s second significant vaccine donation in recent months following a recent delivery to Uganda. However, the delivery to Nigeria was the first consignment of vaccines donated by Ireland through the COVAX process. COVAX is co-led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, Gavi and the World Health Organisation (WHO), alongside UNICEF. Its aim is to accelerate the development and manufacture of Covid-19 vaccines and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world.

“This significant donation of 500,000 vaccines to Nigeria represents Ireland’s continued commitment to universal access to Covid-19 vaccines and their fair and equitable distribution as we work together to bring this global pandemic under control,” according to Minister Donnelly.

So how committed is Ireland to vaccine equity? A feature in this edition of the Medical Independent explores the issue.The day after the donation announcement, People’s Vaccine Alliance Ireland staged a protest outside Leinster House. According to the group, the reason for the protest was that Ireland and the EU are “blocking” efforts to expand vaccine production at ongoing World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks. The organisers argue a waiver of WTO trade-related intellectual property barriers (a so-called ‘TRIPS’ waiver) would help to facilitate sustainable production and supply of vaccines, treatments and diagnostic tests essential to ending the global pandemic. Ireland has not committed to the waiver, nor the WHO Covid-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP).

C-TAP provides a global one-stop-shop for developers of Covid-19 therapeutics, diagnostics, vaccines, and other health products to share their intellectual property, knowledge, and data, with quality-assured manufacturers through public health-driven voluntary, non-exclusive, and transparent licenses.

In April, we reported that Government departments had “noted” the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence recommendation that Ireland fully endorses C-TAP. However, months later, no such commitment has been made. While the delivery of vaccines to Uganda and Nigeria is welcome, broader action is required to stop the spread of Covid-19 globally. If solidarity or altruism fails to motivate countries like Ireland to act, will self-interest? The emergence of the Omicron variant shows the consequence of allowing the coronavirus to continue to spread, more or less unchecked, in other parts of the world.

But supporting the TRIPS waiver and C-TAP would require standing up to powerful commercial forces and this does not seem to be a decision the Irish Government wishes to make right now, if ever.

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