Covid-19: applying human rights standards to ensure corporate accountability in the context of COVID-19 vaccine access

The participation of private actors including pharmaceutical companies in the development and delivery of COVID-19 vaccines has important implications for human rights, in particular the rights to life and to health, that have not been properly considered, a panel of experts asserted in a webinar organized by the South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional, Public, Human Rights and International Law (SAIFAC), the ICJ and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) on March 11.

Taking place exactly one year after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, the webinar, entitled “What are the obligations of States and corporations to ensure access to a COVID-19 vaccine?”, brought together Dr Sharifah Sekalala from the University of Warwick, Fatima Hassan, the founder and head of the Health Justice Initiative, and Prof. David Bilchitz, the director of SAIFAC.

As the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) has recently reaffirmed, vaccine access raises human rights issues relating to both the obligations of States and the responsibilities of businesses.

Carlos Lopez, ICJ’s Senior Legal Adviser stressed:

“It is clear that States have a duty to protect the right to health which entails an obligation to appropriately regulate private actors in health – including those involved in vaccine production and distribution – to retain the affordability and accessibility of COVID-19 vaccines for all. Corporate entities, for their part, have a responsibility to respect the right to health which they violate when they adopt practices which limit or inhibit non-discriminatory vaccine access to all people around the world.”

One of the main elements in the debate is the issue of people’s access to vaccines that are adequate and affordable, and how the capacity of the States to fulfil this key aspect of their international law obligations is being constrained by the operation of certain trade and intellectual property rights law, in particular the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement of the WTO.

Dr Sekalala, pointed to a fundamental underlying issue relating to the predominant rationale of States and companies:

“One of the things that bothers me as a global health lawyer is the lack of transparency around this process and also, in some ways, the fact that States are still clinging on this research and development rationale, maintaining intellectual property rights”.

This also raises serious questions about the nature of the responsibilities that corporate entities may have to respect the right to health, as has been clarified in General Comment 24 of the CESCR and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

“There is a moral dimension to the question about vaccine access:  what should society expect of the corporations? And there is also a legal one: what does the law require? Fundamental rights are essentially urgent moral claims that demand legal institutionalization. Fundamental rights recognized in international law, in the South African Constitution and many other constitutions around the world require, in my view, that corporations have positive obligations but if such positive obligations are not recognized in legal systems, domestically or internationally, the claim is they ought to be”, said Professor Bilchitz.

Although vaccine access may implicate human rights responsibilities of a range of private business entities, such considerations are especially pronounced with regard to pharmaceutical companies given the direct impact of their business operations on vaccine access. Vaccine access raises clear issues about the protection of human rights and the rule of law both internationally and in particular domestic jurisdictions like South Africa.

“Pharmaceutical companies and some wealthier governments that have actually co-funded a lot of the accelerated vaccine research are basically using their own law… right now they are acting as if they are God, they are determining access for the entire world, including the Global South. The Constitution has been thrown out of the window, particularly in the domestic context of South Africa”, said Hassan.


Watch the webinar here.


A powerpoint for Dr Sekalala’s presentation is available here.


A powerpoint for Professor Bilchitz’s presentation is available here.


A powerpoint for Fatima Hassan’s presentation is available here.




Timothy Fish Hodgson, Legal Adviser on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, e:

Tanveer Rashid Jeewa, Communications and Legal Officer, e:

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