President Michael D Higgins has written to his 15 European counterparts to encourage universal and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines throughout the world.

In his letter he describes vaccination rates in Africa as "abysmally and worryingly low" at six per cent of the population and only 27% of healthcare workers.

In his letter he said that a patent waiver, which waives intellectual property rights held by pharmaceutical companies over drugs, had delivered huge benefits in combating HIV in Africa and India.

He said he believed a proposal by the World Trade Organization for a waiver "is an opportunity for Europe to give a lead" in fighting Covid-19.

He said he recognised that a waiver and the mechanism for sharing access to vaccine technology would not be enough.

He added "They will need to be supplemented by a more comprehensive strategy that encompasses the ratchetting up of production capability and capacity, and the development of proper channels of distribution."

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In a statement a Government spokesman said: "The EU has indicated it is committed and open to trying to reach agreement with all members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on how to achieve the shared goal of providing timely and secure access to safe and affordable vaccines and medicines for all through the multilateral rules-based trading system."

President Higgins will meet Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization's Health Emergencies Programme tomorrow in Áras an Uachtaráin.

At the meeting, they will discuss vaccine access and the President will also present Dr Ryan with a Presidential Distinguished Service Award, which recognises the contribution of members of the Irish diaspora.