WTO Fails to Reach Deal on Waiver Proposal to Help Solve COVID Vaccine Inequality

A patent waiver could help developing countries make and shell cheap copies of patented vaccines.
Derya Ozdemir

On March 5th, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, repeated calls for the waiver of some intellectual property rights for coronavirus vaccines, which are the intellectual property protections behind vaccine formulations. Writing in the Guardian, he firmly railed against "a me-first approach" to vaccination, since this is absolutely crucial to attaining a global supply and ensuring everybody is immunized against the strains of Sars-CoV-2.

"We need to be on a war footing, and it’s important to be clear about what is needed," he wrote.

However, at the latest meeting of the World Trade Organization's Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, WTO has once again failed to reach an agreement on a proposal to temporarily waive any intellectual property rights for vaccines and treatments in regards to COVID-19, according to Law 360. This result repeats the previous meetings that were held in December and October. 

The proposal, sponsored by 57 countries in the trade group and put forward by India and South Africa on behalf of countries with little or no vaccine doses, entails the waiver of some patents for WTO members until global vaccination and immunity are achieved. However, the idea has been completely opposed by the U.S. and other western countries, and Brazil which is the only developing country against the proposal. Since WTO works via consensus, meaning that all members must agree on any measure, this means the rest of the world has to continue waiting for the shots.

Why are some countries opposing the proposal?

Opponents state that waiving intellectual property rights would decrease the financial motivation for companies of the future to invest the time and money in research and development, The Washington Post reports. However, there are also people opposing this argument since, during the HIV crisis, the WTO granted a licensing model that gave affordable access to lifesaving medicines for patients.

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Tedros also wrote in the WHO, "Waiving patents temporarily won’t mean innovators miss out. Like during the HIV crisis or in a war, companies will be paid royalties for the products they manufacture." He further explained, "It’s also important for low- and middle-income countries to build on their domestic manufacturing capacity. Just as the yellow fever vaccine is now produced in Dakar, Senegal, an investment in manufacturing could see the same done with coronavirus vaccines."

Most recently, lawmakers are requesting President Joe Biden to change the country's opposition, which was set by former President Donald Trump, to the proposal. The WTO group will meet again at least twice in May to discuss the proposal in further detail.

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