A battle is brewing at the WTO. Here’s why it’s important for a global response to Covid-19

The proposal is supported by more than 100 countries, including the United States. A temporary ban would allow multiple players to start production earlier, instead of concentrating manufacturing in the hands of a small number of patent holders, reported the Lancet.

Opponents of the exemption want to protect intellectual property to encourage research and innovation. Some wealthy regions, which are home to large pharmaceutical industries, including the UK, Switzerland and the EU, opposed the waiver, arguing that the suspension of intellectual property would not result in a sudden increase in supply. in vaccines.

“The logic of patents can be more difficult to defend in the face of a public health crisis, especially when there are few effective drugs and they stay within the term of the patent, which can lead to calls for breach. or patent relaxation, ”said the director of the WTO. General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told delegates on May 5: “The issue of equitable access to vaccines, diagnostics and therapies is both the moral and the economic issue of our time.

The next ministerial conference was due to take place in Geneva, Switzerland, this week and discuss it again. But it was postponed after Switzerland closed its borders following the discovery of the new Omicron variant, first identified by South Africa. Discussions are still going on behind the scenes.

What is the TRIPS Agreement?

The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) is about 26 years old. It is an international legal agreement between all WTO member countries and guarantees a minimum standard of intellectual property protection that a country must provide.

How does voting work at the WTO?

In 2016, the WTO had 164 members. Decisions here are normally made by consensus and must be unanimous. So having a majority of support doesn’t help until every member says yes or abstains. Even a member’s “no” is enough to veto any proposal.

Why do the adversaries want to keep the waiver in place?

European countries constitute the majority of opponents of the measure, speaking in favor of the protection of intellectual property to encourage business, research and innovation. They reject the claim that intellectual property hinders access and argue that equity in vaccines can be achieved through voluntary licensing and donations from countries to the Covax initiative.

“We are concerned about the pandemic. Less developed and developing countries do not get vaccinated quickly enough. But the approach of blaming the lack of vaccine availability on the intellectual property system and proposing that intellectual property protections be put aside is intellectually dishonest, “said David Kappos, an Obama administration official who was dealing with intellectual property issues. “Vaccine inequality is a social justice issue. Not an intellectual property issue. Countries must take the lead in the fight against Covid with pills and vaccine diplomacy.”

Experts also point out that sharing and transferring technology and building the infrastructure in many countries to make these products locally would take months, if not years. The waiver would not have an immediate impact, they argue.

“Renovating or building new factories takes a long time. Running lots of tests, quality controls, audits and regulatory approvals of manufacturing sites is also time consuming ” according to Andrea Taylor of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center.

What are the supporters of the waiver doing?

The supply of Covid-19 drug donations does not match the demand. world Bank estimates indicate that vaccinating only 40% of Africa by the end of 2021 would require 800 million doses. Yet it has so far only received around 102 million doses, according to the Duke Global Health Innovation Center. The need of the whole world is much greater.

“We are facing the limit of manufacturing capacity. We cannot get by. It is not enough supply,” said Dr Benjamin Meier, professor of global health policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “The idea that vaccine diplomacy alone can solve this problem without increasing manufacturing capacity doesn’t work.”

“It’s a debate about the world we want to live in,” he added.

Low-income and developing countries find themselves strapped for vaccine supplies, without authority to manufacture locally, and isolated from the world by travel bans when hit by a severe wave of Covid-19 cases.

Switzerland has enough vaccine doses to vaccinate residents four times and a gave less than 500,000 doses until there. The UK could immunize the entire country six times and has donated around 9.5 million doses, according to the Global Health Innovation Center at Duke University.
During this time, less than 2% of people living in low-income African countries have been fully immunized, according to the World Bank, and billions of doses are needed to immunize the world.

Yuanqiong Hu, senior legal and policy adviser at Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), dismissed the argument that establishing manufacturing capacity after technology transfer would take time, saying countries like India are in a good position to manufacture as soon as possible.

The waiver would reduce the legal risk of being sued in Geneva for intellectual property and allow governments to respond comprehensively to the pandemic instead of taking a piecemeal approach, she argued.

“If we use the traditional means of access, the response of countries to the pandemic is delayed,” Hu told CNN. “The waiver will open the production of raw materials. Currently, some of them are under monopoly. In order to open the whole value chain, we need the waiver. “

As an example, Moderna announced in October 2020 that it will not apply its patents related to Covid-19 against those who manufacture vaccines for the fight against the pandemic. However, there haven’t been many who have used intelligence anyway.

This is because the Moderna vaccine is based on a network of patents that are owned by many different people. The company’s announcement does not reduce the legal risk for anyone who wishes to use it.

“The waiver would bypass all of these complexities and allow countries to navigate production and response to the pandemic,” Hu added.

Has this ever happened before?

In 2001, at the height of the HIV / AIDS epidemic, WTO members signed the ‘Doha Declaration on TRIPS and public health. It was a waiver of intellectual property that facilitated the transfer of technology and empowered governments to take whatever measures were necessary to combat HIV / AIDS. This resulted in better access to treatment drugs and drastically reduced their prices. South Africa and India are aiming for similar results by arguing for this waiver.

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