World Trade Organization to Begin Formal Negotiations to Lift COVID-19 Vaccine Patent Restrictions
Why the citizens of the world should care
Member countries of the World Trade Organization (WTO) moved to start formal negotiations Wednesday around the temporary suspension of COVID-19 patents and intellectual property restrictions on vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics. The move comes months after a proposal on the same issue was put forward by South Africa and India, garnering the support of more than 100 members, including the United States.
Filed in October 2020, the original proposal called for a temporary suspension of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement on COVID-19 tools for the duration of the pandemic. These include patents, but also copyrights, industrial designs and trade secrets in goods and services.
These provisions are one of the most significant obstacles to global vaccine fairness, as they prevent other potential manufacturers in countries around the world from accessing the knowledge and technology necessary to produce vaccines and other vital medical tools. Without a TRIPS waiver, low- and middle-income countries are increasingly dependent on the United States and other developed economies to import these vital resources for fear of patent infringements and litigation – and they have been relegated to the back of the access line.
Global health activists and members of the Popular Alliance for Vaccines, a coalition of organizations advocating for equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, has long pressured world leaders to act. While dose-sharing through global programs such as COVAX is a welcome first step in bridging the significant short-term access gap, the organization argued that without the suspension of intellectual property, developing countries would continue to face increased barriers to immunization.
“It doesn’t make sense that the whole world depends on a handful of pharmaceutical companies that can’t make enough vaccines for everyone,” noted Anna Marriott, Oxfam’s health policy manager, in a report. recent report. Press release. “Despite the millions of doses that G7 leaders pledge to give to COVAX, there will never be enough if more vaccines are produced and the way to achieve this is to share intellectual property and technology. “
Despite growing calls from the global health community to WTO members to move forward with negotiations, little progress has been made in addressing this critical issue to date.
Biden administration backs lifting of COVID-19 vaccine patent restrictions
Countries like Canada, UK and Germany have always opposed a suspension of patent restrictions, arguing that a temporary waiver would hamper innovation in the pharmaceutical industry. The European Commission has called for alternative solutions such as voluntary licensing agreements with manufacturers, more compulsory licenses and the lifting of export restrictions, but advocates have noted that such measures are not enough.
It was only recently that the tide has started to turn, with France backing India and South Africa in their demand ahead of the highly anticipated G7 summit in Cornwall.
Wednesday, the European Parliament also supported proposal, sending a strong message to G7 leaders that the world’s poorest countries can no longer wait for their richer counterparts to act.
“With today’s vote, the European Parliament calls on the Commission to finally do the right thing and save lives by supporting the lifting of patents for COVID-19 vaccines and medical equipment”, mentionned Chief Negotiator Kathleen Van Brempt in a statement. “The TRIPS waiver may not be a silver bullet, but it is one of the essential elements of a strong global immunization campaign. Exceptional situations call for exceptional measures.
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According to Devex, WTO delegates are now holding regular meetings in the hope of reaching consensus on a first draft by July.
Negotiations are a first step for countries to give their opinion on the final language of the waiver and how it might be applied, but discussions will likely be difficult as countries differ in their definition of a public good. The United States, for example, has patent rights limited to vaccines, while South Africa and India argue that it should include other products related to public health such as therapeutic products and personal protective equipment (PPE).
According to the WTO, a final decision should be done in December.
In the meantime, Global Citizen continues to call on rich countries to step up and ensure a fair response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here is how you can help.