World Trade Organization (WTO) member countries moved to start formal negotiations on Wednesday around temporarily suspending COVID-19 patent and intellectual property restrictions on vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics. The move comes months after a proposal on the same issue was put forth by South Africa and India, garnering support from more than 100 members, including the US.
Tabled in October 2020, the initial proposal requested a temporary suspension of 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 on goods and services.
These provisions are one of the most significant hurdles standing in the way of global vaccine equity, as they restrict other potential manufacturers in countries around the world from accessing the knowledge and technology needed to produce vaccines and other lifesaving medical tools. Without a TRIPS waiver, low- and middle-income countries are left increasingly dependent on the US and other developed economies to import these vital resources in fear of patent law infringement and litigation — and they’ve been relegated to the back of the access line.
Global health campaigners and members of the People’s Vaccine Alliance, a coalition of organizations advocating for equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, have long pressed world leaders to take action. While sharing doses via global schemes such as COVAX is a welcome first step to fill the significant short term access gap, the organization argued that without the suspension of IP, developing countries would continue to experience increased barriers to vaccination.
“It doesn’t make sense for the entire world to be dependent on just a handful of pharmaceutical corporations that cannot make enough vaccines for everyone,” Oxfam Health Policy Manager Anna Marriott noted in a recent news release. “However many millions of doses G7 leaders pledge to donate to COVAX, there will only ever be enough if more vaccines are being produced and the way to do that is to share the intellectual property and the technology.”
Despite growing calls from the global health community for WTO members to move forward with negotiations, there has been little progress in addressing this crucial issue to date.
Countries such as Canada, the UK, and Germany have consistently 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 license deals with manufacturers, more compulsory licensing, and lifting export restrictions, but advocates have noted that such measures are not sufficient.
Only recently have the tides started to turn, with France backing India and South Africa in their request ahead of the much-awaited G7 summit in Cornwall.
On Wednesday, the European Parliament also backed the proposal, sending a strong message to G7 leaders that the world’s poorest countries can no longer wait for their wealthiest 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,” said lead negotiator Kathleen Van Brempt in a statement. “The TRIPS waiver may not prove to be a miracle solution, but it is one of the essential building blocks of a strong global vaccination campaign. Exceptional situations call for exceptional measures.”
According to Devex, WTO delegates are now holding regular meetings in the hopes of reaching a consensus on a first draft by July.
Negotiations are a first step for countries to provide their input on the final language of the waiver and how it could be applied, but the talks are likely to be arduous as countries differ in their definition of a public good. The US, for instance, has limited patent lifting to vaccines, while South Africa and India contend that it should include other public health-related products such as therapeutics and personal protective equipment (PPE).
According to the WTO, a final decision is expected to be made in December.
In the meantime, Global Citizen is continuing to call on rich countries to step up and ensure an equitable response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s how you can help.