WTO decision on access to COVID-19 drugs without strings delayed

Proposal will be formally discussed in March next year, sources say

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Thursday 10 December 2020
WTO decision on waiver to access COVID-19 drugs without strings delayed. Photo:

The World Trade Organization (WTO)’s meeting to discuss a proposal to waive certain obligations in its TRIPS Agreement on the prevention, containment or treatment of the novel coronavirus disease ended without consensus on December 10, 2020.

The waiver proposal would be discussed formally in March 2021, according to sources.

The Council for Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights cannot take a decision in the next 90 days in accordance with the 1994 Marrakesh Agreement. 

WTO member countries are divided over the proposal to waive off Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) on drugs and pharmaceuticals needed to prevent, diagnose and treat the novel coronavirus disease or COVID-19 caused by SARS-CoV-2 that has already killed 1,551,214 people globally as of December 9, 2020. 

The proposal was put forth by India and South Africa on October 2. It requested a waiver on certain provisions of the TRIPS Agreement to allow countries an option to neither grant nor enforce patents and other IP related to COVID-19 drugs, vaccines, diagnostics and other technologies for the duration of the pandemic. The proposal is officially co-sponsored by Eswatini, Kenya, Mozambique, Pakistan and Bolivia. 

A hundred WTO members have welcomed or fully supported the proposal. However, countries like Australia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, the UK and the US are withholding support. These countries have traditionally backed the interests of their pharmaceutical corporations through a proprietary IP system.

On December 9, a petition from over 900,000 individuals from around the world was delivered virtually by Avaaz, a global online citizen movement, to the WTO.

This petition too called for universal access to affordable COVID-19 vaccines and requested governments, WTO members and pharmaceutical companies to ensure access to lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and equipment for everyone in the world. 

Bernard Kuiten, the WTO’s head of external relations, said international cooperation and coordination were crucial for humanity to leave the pandemic behind, when he was presented with the petition. As of December 9, there have been 67,780,361 confirmed cases of the deadly disease globally. 

Before the petition, on December 8, civil society launched a Twitter storm to mobilise the global health movement, online audiences, followers, and civil society and create pressure on governments that have blocked the TRIPS waiver proposal at the WTO. 

Civil society has been highlighting their concerns and has been supported by stakeholders for some time now. For example, 95 parliamentarians wrote to the UK government to support the TRIPS waiver on November 23.

The refusal to waive patent rights over COVID-19 vaccines seems ludicrous considering that public funding has been driving COVID-19 research and development.

For instance, it has been reported that Moderna Inc’s vaccine is 100 per cent publicly funded. In addition, billions of dollars are being spent by governments on purchasing the vaccine. 

Innovations that are created collectively, should be governed in the public interest and should not be under monopoly control, Leena Menghaney, regional head (South Asia) at the Access Campaign at Médecins Sans Frontières, told Down To Earth.

This was especially true when it came to developing / manufacturing / supplying a vaccine in the context of a pandemic. A worldwide right to use, produce and supply, as would be enabled by granting the TRIPS IP waiver, appropriately matched these collective efforts, she said.

“To be sure, the work to create diagnostics, and vaccines in a matter of months deserves praise. But the springboard was decades of massive public investment in research and development,” Menghaney added.  

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