scales on blue background.

Conclusion to the Symposium: From Principles to Practice: Human Rights and Public Health Emergencies

By Timothy Fish Hodgson, Roojin Habibi, and Alicia Ely Yamin

In developing the digital symposium, From Principles to Practice: Human Rights and Public Health Emergencies (which ran from October – December 2023), as editors we endeavored to get scholars, human rights advocates, judges, and policy makers to engage critically with the expert Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Public Health Emergencies (the PHE Principles), published by the International Commission of Jurists and the Global Health Law Consortium in May 2023. In doing so, we encouraged contributors to comment on the Principles’ potential usefulness as guidance in addressing real emergency situations, as well as any possible gaps and weaknesses.

While summarizing the entire content of the 13 blogs comprising this symposium in any depth is not possible here, this concluding post will attempt to synthesize some of the major inputs from the contributions. We also provide some of our own observations, as participants in the drafting of the Principles, with the aim of pushing the discussion prompted by the posts forward.

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LOMBARDIA, ITALY - FEBRUARY 26, 2020: Empty hospital field tent for the first AID, a mobile medical unit of red cross for patient with Corona Virus. Camp room for people infected with an epidemic.

Non-State Actors and Public Health Emergencies

By Rossella De Falco

Strong, well-coordinated and resilient public health care services play a vital role in preventing and responding to public health crises. Under international human rights law, States have a positive, primary obligation to ensure that such health care services are of the highest possible quality and accessible to everyone, everywhere, and without discrimination.

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Making Explicit a Rights-Based Approach to Infodemic in a Public Health Emergency

By Calvin Wai-Loon Ho

With the mainstreaming of digital technology across many spheres of social life, infodemic management must be an integral part of public health emergency prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery.

While the Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Public Health Emergencies (the Principles) do not make explicit reference to infodemics, the application of digital technologies in response to a public health emergency is a clear concern. This article provides further elaboration and critique of the Principles and their treatment of this emergent phenomenon.

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Bill of Health - Globe and vaccine, covid vaccine

COVID-19 Showcased Failed Global Cooperation

By Kayum Ahmed, Julia Bleckner, and Kyle Knight

In mid-May, the World Health Organization officially declared  the “emergency” phase of the COVID-19 pandemic over. However, the deep wounds of the pandemic remain, compelling  those concerned about this pandemic and  future health emergencies to account for catastrophic failures by those in power. These reflections suggest that the public health crisis could have been addressed differently, both reducing COVID-19’s unprecedented magnitude of illness and death, and preserving human dignity.

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over, and the end of this pandemic’s emergency phase certainly doesn’t mean we accept the widely abysmal response as the model for the world’s reaction to the next one. Public health emergencies aren’t entirely preventable. We live in a complex world where health is increasingly affected by a changing climate, extraordinary levels of pollution, and inadequate preventive and responsive health services. Emergencies will happen. But when they do, responses that uphold human rights need to be the norm.

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Risograph clenched, raised fists with speech bubble and geometric shapes, trendy riso graph design.

Introduction to the Symposium: From Principles to Practice: Human Rights and Public Health Emergencies

By Roojin Habibi, Timothy Fish Hodgson, and Alicia Ely Yamin

Today, as the world transitions from living in the grips of a novel coronavirus to living with an entrenched, widespread infectious disease known as COVID-19, global appreciation for the human rights implications of public health crises are once again rapidly fading from view.

Against the backdrop of this burgeoning collective amnesia, a project to articulate the human rights norms relevant to public health emergencies led to the development of the 2023 Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Public Health Emergencies (the Principles).

This symposium gathers reflections from leading scholars, activists, jurists, and others from around the world with respect to the recently issued Principles.

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Vaccine and syringe in front of EU flag.

The European Commission’s New Compulsory Licensing Proposal: A Step Forward?

By Sarah Gabriele

On April 27, 2023, the European Commission proposed new legislation that would allow companies to make drugs without the patent holder’s consent in emergency situations. The proposed legislation constitutes a step forward in the European Union’s effort to harmonize patent law in the Union, after the establishment of Unitary Patents and the European Patent Court.

In its proposal, the EU Commission acknowledges that intellectual property rights, and, in particular, patent rights play an important role in access to medicine, especially during public health crises. The COVID-19 crisis demonstrated how the need for protecting and incentivizing innovation clashed with the need to make products widely available. To solve this tension, the Commission recognizes that patent law already offers a solution: compulsory licensing.

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see saw with earth as fulcrum and a pile of vaccines weighing down one side with nothing on the other side.

What Happened to the COVID-19 Vaccine Patent Waiver?

By Sarah Gabriele

In June 2022, after almost two years of debate over a potential COVID-19 vaccine patent waiver, the World Trade Organization adopted the Ministerial Decision on the TRIPS Agreement (“WTO Decision”), which provided for a partial waiver of intellectual property rights.

More specifically, the WTO Decision waived patent rights on vaccines and allowed for the use of protected clinical trial data for regulatory approval of vaccines. However, after almost four months since the adoption of the WTO Decision, there is still a large gap in vaccination rates worldwide.

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Grassy field with white picket fence encircling it.

Accessing COVID-19 mRNA Vaccines for Research: The Re-emergence of the Tragedy of the ‘Anticommons’

By Aparajita Lath

Some COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers in the US have refused to share vaccine samples for research purposes, creating an access issue with the potential to delay comparator studies, follow-on research, and new vaccine / drug development.

This issue may be the latest example of the tragedy of the “anticommons” in biomedical research.

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Bill of Health - Globe and vaccine, covid vaccine

Reclaiming Global Public Health

By Zain Rizvi

By December 2020, the world had astonishingly powerful tools against COVID-19. New mRNA vaccines, underpinned by decades of public investment, had been authorized by global regulators. Yet the promise of the vaccines was unevenly realized: deep fault lines emerged between those who were able to secure vaccines and those left behind, or what South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa called “vaccine apartheid.”

Dose shortages elevated the role of pharmaceutical executives. Fielding calls from heads of state, they decided what vaccine deliveries to prioritize, shaping which countries could protect lives and livelihoods. The answer to one of the most important public health questions of our time — who gets access to vaccines? — was mostly determined neither by political representatives nor scientists, but by corporate executives.

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The Proposed TRIPS Compromise Risks Setting Several Bad Precedents

By James Love

On March 15, 2022, STAT published text of a proposed compromise at the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily relax global standards for intellectual property for COVID-19. The original proposal tabled by India and South Africa in 2020 as IP/C/W/669 would have waived 40 articles of the WTO Trade Related Agreement on Intellectual Property Rights, known as the TRIPS.

The proposed compromise would allow for “the use of patented subject matter required for the production and supply of COVID-19 vaccines without the consent of the right holder to the extent necessary to address the COVID-19 pandemic, in accordance with the provisions of Article 31 of the Agreement, as clarified and waived.” In short, the compromise only waives a single 20-word paragraph in one article: the one dealing with exports under a non-voluntary authorization.

In general, there are no legal benefits to the proposal. Countries can already export a non-predominant share of vaccine production under the TRIPS agreement, with mechanisms that are broader regarding both exports and imports, available regardless of the technology, and permanent.

This note focuses on the practical risks the proposed agreement presents as a precedent.

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