Washington, D.C. – Students on over a dozen campuses across the U.S. are participating in a “Week of Action” calling on the Biden administration to support lifting World Trade Organization (WTO) barriers to global COVID test and treatment access. The tabling, letter writing, educational events and rallies taking place coast-to-coast come as the WTO General Council meets from October 6–7 to discuss proposals that would allow low- and middle-income countries more easily produce low-cost COVID medications.
“Billions of people in low- and middle-income countries worldwide still don’t have access to the COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments that many Americans take for granted,” said Kaleigh Flanagan at SUNY New Paltz in New Paltz, N.Y. “This ongoing inequality is contributing to huge numbers of avoidable deaths each day, and is largely responsible for the COVID variants that are prolonging hardships for everyone. Lifting the pharmaceutical monopoly protections that block countries from producing low-cost versions of COVID medicines is critical to saving lives and preventing suffering.”
Last spring, over 750 students wrote an open letter to President Biden encouraging him to support an emergency waiver of the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) needed to enable increased production of COVID medical technologies in low- and middle-income countries. At the time, more than 100 countries supported a TRIPS waiver, but the language ultimately approved by the WTO in June was watered down by affluent nations to the point of leaving almost all barriers to increased vaccine production intact. Primarily at U.S. demand, the June agreement also delayed consideration of lifting barriers to COVID tests and treatments for up to six months. That latter issue of test and treatment access is thus still being debated at the WTO this week, with a final decision expected by mid-December.
“So far, the Biden administration has been punting on the question of whether they will support expanding global access to COVID tests and treatments, but they can’t put off a decision forever. Each day of delay means more needless death,” said Jasmine Zettell at the University of Washington in Seattle, Wash. “It’s time to put human lives over pharmaceutical company profits. Backing proposals by South Africa, India and other nations to lift WTO barriers to test and treatment access is the right thing to do.”
Among the Student Week of Action’s activities are rallies to “End COVID Monopolies” being held outside Pfizer World Headquarters in New York and on campus at Portland State University, the University of California – Berkeley, University of Texas at Austin and University of Washington.
“Students have always had an important role to play in creating a more just and sustainable world. Supporting global access to COVID medication is a no brainer for a generation whose formative years were so substantially shaped by the pandemic,” said Noël Hutton, student outreach coordinator for the Trade Justice Education Fund, which together with Amnesty International USA and Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, helped coordinate the week.