The struggle for vaccine equity intensifies in Italy

The European Union has been at the forefront of the opposition that rich countries have shown towards the TRIPS waiver proposal for COVID-19 medical products. However, the EU’s position in the international arena is not shared by the people of Europe, who wish to see vaccines accessible in the Global South

November 19, 2021 by Peoples Health Dispatch
Dr. Vittorio Agnoletto

Since November 2020, the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) Right to Cure has been collecting signatures in favor of a change to the current position of the European Union towards lifting intellectual property limitations on COVID-19 medical products, and making the much-needed vaccines available to all. The aim of the initiative is to collect 1 million signatures of EU citizens, which would force the European Commission to officially table and discuss the ECI’s requests: that COVID-19 vaccines should be treated as global public goods; that people’s health should come before the profit of Big Pharma; and that EU politicians and Big Pharma representatives should be held accountable for the questionable content of the vaccine procurement agreements they signed. We spoke to Vittorio Agnoletto, doctor and health activist, who is one of the coordinators of the initiative’s Italian branch.

People’s Health Dispatch (PHD): To begin with, Vittorio, could you tell our readers a bit more about the ECI, and particularly about the coalition that has been formed in Italy?

Vittorio Agnoletto (VA): In Italy, the local ECI coalition is quite big: there are more than 110 different organizations. These include some of the largest trade union confederations in Italy, for example the Italian General Confederation of Labour (CGIL, the Italian Confederation of Workers’ Trade Unions (CISL) and Italian Union of Labor (UIL); but also, big civil society organizations like Medicina Democratica, Forum della Salute and Emergency, who have been working in the field of health for decades. There are also associations who have not worked on health before, but have recognized this as an important cause to come together around, and have a lot of experience when it comes to human rights and the promotion of democracy, like Arci and Gruppo Abele. And finally, we have obtained the support of many parties on the left, but also from local religious groups. This is the first time in many, many years that all these groups have come together around something.

PHD: And how do you make all these different points of view work together, and at the same time appear as a united front to the people outside the coalition?

VA: In our coalition we have a few public faces – we refer to them as witnesses, testimoni in Italian – and they come from different fields. For example, one of our public representatives was Gino Strada, the leader of Emergency, who was able to do a fantastic representation of the initiative thanks to many years of experience in the field of international health. Unfortunately, Gino died a few months ago, but his contribution to the initiative, especially in that part of it which communicates to health professionals and health activists, was incredible. Other ambassadors are also doctors, pharmacologists like Silvio Garattini and others, but also people who are recognized as important figures in social movements. We have Luigi Ciotti, the president of Libera, the biggest association working against the mafia and organized crime, speaking for the initiative, because it’s such a crucial thing for the protection of all human rights, not only the right to health. And then there’s Riccardo Petrella, an economist, who is able to address this part of the issue in public, and so on. We’re able to put forward a lot of people with different expertise, and they are all able to show why it’s important for Europe to stand up for vaccine equity.

One of the things that really helped us reach more people was our idea to get the support of people from the culture field, such as actors and personalities from the cinema field, theater, and generally people who could be recognized. So, on April 7 (the day when many health groups mobilize for the International Day of Action against Commercialization of Health, PHD) we organized a webinar with them, and we had more than 30 speakers of this profile – and more people kept calling during the webcast, expressing their support. We still have the recordings of the messages of support on our social media pages.

PHD: Did their support also help with making the initiative visible in the mainstream media?

VA: No, I can’t say that. Although there are some journalists who want to show why the initiative is important, overall, we have been blocked by mainstream media. With very few exceptions, they ignored us completely, they closed the door completely. Il Manifesto, of course, does cover what we do, and so do some of the media associated with the Catholic Church. Radio Vaticana publishes our speeches and points of view. And there’s obviously Radio Popolare where I conduct a show on health, but the public television, RAI, does not cover us. Only a few investigative broadcasts at RAI spoke of our campaign. At one point, we thought we had finally secured some space on a national television for a debate between me, as a representative of the ECI, and the president of a big Italian pharma company, but it got cancelled at the last minute – and a short time later, the pharma president was invited all alone, with no counter point of view or anything. The influence Big Pharma has on our mainstream media and the government itself is very strong, and is proving very hard to get through.

In Italy, at the moment, we have something they call the national unity government, which is a government formed by most major parties of the Parliament. That should mean that there is room also for leftist, more progressive ideas, right? But although the current minister of health is from what should be a leftist party, there is no understanding of what we are advocating for through the ECI. The achievements we have made on the ground by bringing different organizations together is completely different from what we have experienced when we reached out to the government. It is like two different worlds.

To get around this kind of blockade, and also to shake it at least a bit, we try different things. We’ve written to the Parliamentary Commission saying that the ECI is an official instrument of the EU, and as such should get fair coverage. But we also can’t really imagine getting a real answer to these kinds of questions. So we focus on mobilizing, demonstrating, and using the media space that is given to other events which are related to COVID-19. We did a demonstration during the G20 meeting in Rome. We protested in front of the headquarters of drug companies, and recently, in October, we did a public event with trade unions. The three general secretaries of the most important trade unions also spoke at one of our webinars, and this helps reach more people.

Another thing we did was connect with some of the religious groups. We wrote a letter to the Italian Catholic Bishops conference, and we actually participated in a meeting with the Pope. Again, this might sound unorthodox, but consider that to many people in Italy, the Pope is really important, they listen to what he has to say. Not long after the meeting I mentioned, the Pope met with Biden, the US president – and he asked him to support the TRIPS waiver. Interestingly, not much about this was published in Italian media, but we could still read elsewhere that the Pope supports the call for vaccine equity.

PHD: And what’s your experience with approaching people whom you want to sign the ECI? Do they share the government’s opinion that this is not an important enough topic to be covered, or do they want to hear more when you talk to them?

VA: When we speak about these things on the street, we observe very, very strong support for our campaign. Most people say, ‘Yes, this is right, I agree with this.’ But of course, not all people are the same, and not all of them signed for the same reason – for some, it’s enough to hear that it’s about justice, it’s about solidarity, that they should sign in solidarity with the people of the Global South. Some of them think primarily about their own interest, so we try to convince them that if not everyone has access to the vaccine, the virus can grow stronger, come back to Italy, and the vaccines we have now might not be able to protect us from all the variants. So those people, they sign because of their own interest – but many of them sign nevertheless.

And it has been really important to get the support of health workers for the initiative, to hear health workers talk to people about the reasons this ECI is important. Many of us in the national coalition are physicians, and we use our professional credentials to prove that the aims of the initiative are important, and that it can make a difference if people support them. On the other hand, it has been easier to get the support of doctors outside the infectious diseases area, because a lot of them in the infectious diseases departments are working on some COVID-19-related project with funding from Big Pharma. So, it’s hard to get their support for backing something that would waive intellectual property rights, because currently some of them have a private interest in the relationship with the pharmaceutical industry.

PHD: We know that there are quite a few demonstrations in favor of the TRIPS waiver that will take place in Europe throughout November. What are the plans of the Italian ECI and what will you be pushing for on the local level?

VA: Well, of course, we’re still pushing for the petition to be signed. We have collected over 55,000 signatures in Italy, more than what we needed to in order to pass the national threshold, but there’s a lot to be done still. We’ll be there with the other initiatives when the World Trade Organization meets on November 30, calling for them to finally pass the TRIPS waiver. We’re planning quite a few actions then, but I shouldn’t disclose too much about them just yet!

Locally, we want to push the government to admit that the TRIPS waiver is the best chance we have for vaccine equity. They are avoiding this conversation still, using the EU’s humanitarian approach to vaccine sharing as an excuse. Like many other European governments, after every meeting, they have said, “Well, we are still in favor of the patents, but we can give millions of vaccine doses as a donation to the Global South.” They promised to give 45 million doses and until now (October 2021) have only shipped 6 million, a mere 15%. So obviously, this approach of theirs cannot be trusted, it’s not working.

And here I have to point out something that’s very illogical. In contrast to what the parties of the government have been doing inside the country, some of their representatives in the European Parliament have voted in favor of the TRIPS waiver. We are using this fact to put pressure on the government to get their act straight – if your representative is expressing support for a waiver of IP rights in Brussels, then her party at home should be backing the same thing. I hope that people in other countries of the EU will be pushing for the same thing, because if we look at the TRIPS waiver vote in the European Parliament, most of the members of the parliament supported it. And if they are ready to vote for that in the European Parliament, when they come home, they should act to make it happen, their parties should act to make it happen.

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Vittorio Agnoletto is a physician specialized in occupational health. He hosts a show on health on Radio Popolare and is an activist in many right to health networks, including Medicina Democratica and the People’s Health Movement.