Asean leaders make a plea for fairer distribution of vaccines

Workers unloading a container with a million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine from a plane at Viracopos International Airport in Brazil last month.
Workers unloading a container with a million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine from a plane at Viracopos International Airport in Brazil last month.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Equitable vaccine access and international sharing and cooperation are vital to support post-pandemic global recovery, Asean leaders said yesterday at the Nikkei conference.

Predicting a "long century of recurring health emergencies", Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin spoke of the need for a total transformation of pharmaceutical intellectual property (IP) amid hoarding of Covid-19 vaccines by richer nations.

He welcomed the stated intention of the United States to support a temporary waiver of IP protection for Covid-19 vaccines, but criticised Washington for exporting just 1.1 per cent of its total production. The US alone has taken 20 per cent, or 252 million doses, of the global supply of vaccines, he noted.

"Pausing the gears is not enough. Our obligation is to dismantle it entirely... to produce cheaper generic versions of life-saving medicines for critical diseases," Tan Sri Muhyiddin said in a pre-recorded speech at the 26th International Conference on The Future of Asia, an annual forum organised by Japanese media giant Nikkei.

He cited "man-made hurdles" in suppressing the pandemic, noting that the 27 wealthiest countries had 35.5 per cent of global vaccine supply despite making up only a tenth of the world's population.

Referring to Article 25(1) of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he said: "It is high time for these innovations - drugs, vaccines and medical devices - to be brought out of the purview of individual patent rights and for global property rights to be created instead."

Other Asean leaders made similar calls at the conference.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said Asia needed to make global supply and distribution of vaccines a "high priority", while Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha called for vaccines to be made "global public goods".

"We need collective action towards a global vaccination campaign, and prevent vaccine nationalism and politicisation," Mr Prayut said. Thailand is currently dealing with its worst surge in Covid-19 cases thus far.

Vietnam's Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, stressed the need for unity among nations, saying that Hanoi was seeking continued support and help from other countries in terms of "research and production and equal access to vaccines".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 21, 2021, with the headline 'Asean leaders make a plea for fairer distribution of vaccines'. Subscribe