A battle is brewing at the WTO. Here’s why it’s important for a global response to Covid-19
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.
âThe 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, âsaid the director of the WTO. General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told delegates on May 5: âThe 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 ânoâ 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.
âWe 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.
What are the supporters of the waiver doing?
“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.
Yuanqiong Hu, senior legal and policy adviser at MÃ©decins Sans FrontiÃ¨res (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.
âIf we use the traditional means of access, the response of countries to the pandemic is delayed,â Hu told CNN. âThe 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. “
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.