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Forman Discusses Solutions to the Inequitable Distribution of Vaccines

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the urgent need for systems to better distribute vaccines equitably to all parts of the world, according to Lisa Forman.  

“I think we can all probably say that coming out of the last couple of years, it’s absolutely the opposite of what you want it to be: equity, rights, fairness,” Forman said. “They just don’t seem to be in the picture.”

Forman, an associate professor of public health at the University of Toronto, outlined potential solutions to global vaccine inequity in a Boston College Law School lecture on Thursday.  

At the start of the lecture, Philip Landrigan, a professor of biology and director of the BC’s global public health program, gave an overview on vaccines and their importance in public health.

“There needs to be financial mechanisms in place and legal and policy mechanisms that allow people in every corner of the world at every level of income to get access to the vaccine,” Landrigan said. “There’s no point in having a great vaccine and a great vaccine program and no access.” 

Landrigan’s introduction segued into Forman’s lecture, where she emphasized the problematic distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“The majority of the vaccines … have gone to wealthier nations,” Forman said. “And very, very few have gone to low-income countries, with the fewest vaccines going to the African continent.”

Forman said this problem is largely due to wealthy nations purchasing all of the vaccines. 

“It’s largely because high-income countries have bought up as much as they can of available vaccines and ordered those vaccines and there simply hasn’t been enough to go around for everybody else,” Forman said. 

Forman said properly interpreting certain articles of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), a universal human rights treaty created by the United Nations, has the potential to make vaccines more accessible by ensuring they are affordable and not limited by intellectual property laws. 

“It doesn’t just articulate a right to benefit from the protection of moral and material interests, or when you produce scientific literary or artistic production, but it also talks about people’s right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its application,” Forman said.

Forman said another solution is drafting a new international treaty that specifically addresses pandemics and includes requirements for affordable, safe, and effective pandemic responses at an international level. 

“The fact that there are these recognitions of state duties to ensure timely access to affordable medicines in very much the same language as you’d find in the human rights interpretations, I think reflects the normative imprint of the right,” Forman said.

Yet according to Forman, it is unclear whether or not a new treaty could accomplish these goals.

“I think that the broader politics of access to medicines and of intellectual property rights are very likely to prevent that outcome and to prevent the pandemic treaty from meaningfully linking access to medicines and vaccines to the right to health,” Forman said.

Forman illustrated the importance of working toward a more equitable future across all aspects of society, especially regarding healthcare and access to medicine.

“If we go back out to the bigger picture, around this extraordinary amount of movement towards recognition of the rhetoric of access to affordable medicines, as a right, I think we can maybe hope that we’re really in the middle of an evolutionary process that is nowhere near completed,” Forman said.

January 30, 2023