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Decolonising human rights: how intellectual property laws result in unequal access to the COVID-19 vaccine

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Sharifah Sekalala, Lisa Forman, Timothy Hodgson, Moses Mulumba, Hadijah Namyalo-Ganafa, Benjamin Mason Meier


The recent rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines offers hope in addressing the worst pandemic in a hundred years. However, many countries in the Global South face great difficulties in accessing vaccines, partly because of restrictive intellectual property law. These laws exacerbate both global and domestic inequalities and prevent countries from fully realising the right to health for all their people. Commodification of essential medicines, such as vaccines, pushes poorer countries into extreme debt and reproduces national inequalities that discriminate against marginalised groups. This article explains how a decolonial framing of human rights and public health could contribute to addressing this systemic injustice. We envisage a human rights and global health law framework based on solidarity and international cooperation that focuses funding on long-term goals and frees access to medicines from the restrictions of intellectual property law. This would increase domestic vaccine production, acquisition and distribution capabilities in the Global South.

Summary box

  • Restrictive intellectual property laws inhibit access to essential medicines such as vaccines.

  • Commodification of essential medicines such vaccines can push countries into greater indebtedness and increase national and international inequalities.

  • A decolonised approach to human rights in global health can enable us to address this systemic injustice.

  • A decolonised approach demands three things.
    Firstly, reparative justice, not through charitable models such as COVAX but through redistribution, secondly increasing manufacturing capacity of states from the global south and thirdly that states should pay greater attention to the human rights responsibilities of corporations.