If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it's that equitable access to vaccines is essential to our global recovery efforts. But making that a reality requires materials, equipment, and, most importantly, the ability to produce the vaccine in enough quantities to meet demand at home. 

Unfortunately, high vaccine prices and intellectual property (IP) barriers have kept manufacturing from moving to low- and middle-income countries, some of which are among the most vulnerable to the spread of the virus.

There is, however, a solution. What if instead of manufacturing the vaccine in a single place, it could be manufactured in multiple locations? 

That's where a patent waiver comes in. 

By waiving some IP rights on key components of the COVID-19 vaccine, governments could help make it possible for countries with minimal resources to produce the necessary vaccine on their own. 

Here's everything you need to know about why it matters, how it could help us end the pandemic once and for all, and what you can do to help make it happen.

What Are Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS)?

Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) are the global agreements on intellectual property and its patent, copyright, industrial design, trademark, and trade secret regulations. These agreements were first introduced in 1995 by the World Trade Organization (WTO).

With TRIPS, countries must provide high-quality protection for these forms of IP from the moment they're created by a person or company. In the context of pharmaceutical patents, governments need to provide exclusive rights to the patent holder for a specific time period. This means that when a pharmaceutical company develops a cure for a disease, it has the exclusive right to sell its product and charge whatever price it wishes. 

Countries can circumvent these restrictions by resorting to compulsory licensing, which allows anyone to make, use, or even sell a patented product without the consent of the patent owner. However, in practice, there are too many institutional barriers at play for poor countries to use that option. This means, in the case of COVID-19 vaccines, that those who need the vaccine the most have limited access to it.

What Is the TRIPS Waiver for COVID-19 Vaccines?

As a response, a group of countries led by South Africa and India, and backed by US President Joe Biden, have proposed to waive most IP rights on key components of the vaccine. This waiver would give any country the ability to manufacture the vaccine more flexibility in design and production until herd immunity against COVID-19 is declared by the World Health Organization (WHO). Not only would this apply to vaccines, but also to diagnostics, drugs, and other technologies until the pandemic is under control everywhere.

The problem is that rich countries — Australia, Brazil, Canada, the EU, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, and the UK — oppose this proposal, citing concerns about pharmaceutical innovation. Similarly, Big Pharma companies that profit off patents have also voiced their disapproval, all while generating hundreds of millions of dollars at the expense of the health of the world's poorest communities. 

What Are 3 Key Facts People Should Know About the TRIPS Waiver?

  • Because of IP rights restrictions, low- and middle-income countries are unable to manufacture vaccines domestically. Their populations are left scrambling for resources while Big Pharma makes billions off a deadly pandemic.

  • A waiver on IP rights would help low- and middle-income countries scale up manufacturing and production capacity, but a handful of rich countries have opposed the proposal.

  • We urgently need the global community to come together to #StopTheBlock and ensure that no one gets left behind in the fight against COVID-19 and extreme poverty.

How Would a TRIPS Waiver Benefit People’s Lives?

Recent data shows that only 1% of Africans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, putting billions of people at risk of contracting the deadliest forms of the virus as new strains such as the Delta variant emerge. In contrast, most rich nations are reaching skyrocketing vaccination rates due to favorable access to resources and technology.

A waiver wouldn’t solve these issues overnight. Rebuilding fragile health systems will take time — but the proposal could help save billions of lives at a time when urgent action is needed.

First, sharing know-how would make it easier for countries with limited resources to manufacture lifesaving vaccines and other products independently by providing them with information on how to design and produce the components without violating IP rights provided by TRIPS. This would turn these components into public goods that governments can use freely until the pandemic is over.

Additionally, a waiver could help increase supply in low- and middle-income countries by scaling up research, development, and production more rapidly, particularly in places where access to the vaccine rollout has been met with countless logistical and supply challenges. No one is safe until everyone is safe, and as long as the virus rages on somewhere, it will continue to pose a danger to all of us. 

Last but not least, the waiver would help address and overcome worsened inequalities regarding access to knowledge and health care — ultimately helping us lay a foundation for a fairer world post-pandemic than the one we knew before.

How Does This Relate to Ending Poverty and the Global Goals?

As part of the Global Goals, the United Nations calls on world leaders to ensure the right to health for all by 2030 — but achieving this goal won't be possible without greater coordination and a strong, global commitment to equity. 

A waiver would help address these issues, potentially improving access to life-saving treatments and other resources needed to improve health outcomes and stamp out the pandemic once and for all.

What Do We Need to Achieve This?

We need strong political will and global cooperation to ensure that countries come to a consensus on the matter. Under WTO rules, the proposal requires the agreement of all 164 member states on its adoption. Right now, the waiver is being blocked by a handful of countries, including  Australia, Canada, Japan, Norway, and Switzerland. Unless they agree to the waiver, these countries will thwart the proposal and prevent countries from accessing the vaccine components they need to fight this disease effectively. Meanwhile, thousands of people will continue to die of COVID-19 every day.

What Action Can We All Take To Help?

You can support our Recovery Plan for the World campaign and ask that governments stop siding with pharma against sharing IP. Click here to #StopTheBlock — we'll share your image with world leaders to urge them to step up.

You can join the Global Citizen Live campaign to defeat poverty and defend the planet by taking action here, and become part of a movement powered by citizens around the world who are taking action together with governments, corporations, and philanthropists to make change.

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COVID-19 Vaccine Intellectual Property Rights: Everything You Need to Know

By Sarah El Gharib