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Decolonising human rights: how intellectual property laws result in unequal access to the COVID-19 vaccine
  1. Sharifah Sekalala1,
  2. Lisa Forman2,
  3. Timothy Hodgson3,
  4. Moses Mulumba4,
  5. Hadijah Namyalo-Ganafa5,
  6. Benjamin Mason Meier6
  1. 1Warwick Law School, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK
  2. 2Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  3. 3International Commission of Jurists, Johannesburg, South Africa
  4. 4Center for Health, Human Rights and Development, Kampala, Uganda
  5. 5School of Law, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda
  6. 6Department of Public Policy, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Sharifah Sekalala; sharifah.sekalala{at}


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.

  • COVID-19
  • vaccines
  • health economics
  • treatment

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  • Handling editor Seye Abimbola

  • Twitter @sharifasekalala, @lforman, @BenjaminMMeier

  • Contributors SS (lead author) conceived the idea, wrote the first draft and drafted the final version of the manuscript. The rest of the authors contributed equally to further conceptualisation of the ideas and editing the draft.

  • Funding This project was funded by an IRSF grant from the University of Warwick.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.