Waive rights to Pharma vaccines? What would that mean

Placeholder while loading article actions

The world’s top trade ministers will soon determine the fate of a World Trade Organization proposal to water down intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccine makers. The deal as proposed is backed by the European Union, although its other original backers don’t quite agree with it. It has also faced fierce opposition from public interest groups and the pharmaceutical industry who are urging nations to reject it.

1. What is the proposal?

In March 2022, the United States, the European Union, India and South Africa put forward a plan to temporarily waive the application of certain provisions of the WTO Agreement on Aspects of intellectual property rights that affect trade – or travel for short. The proposal would allow most developing countries to authorize the use of ingredients and processes needed to produce and supply vaccines without the consent of the rights holder. The scope of the agreement is limited to Covid-19 vaccines and omits tests, therapeutics and other drugs. The agreement also sets an eligibility ceiling that excludes China.

2. What would the lifting of protections mean for Covid vaccines?

If accepted by WTO members, a waiver would send an important signal that those in eligible countries that replicate Covid-19 vaccine recipes and manufacturing processes will not be subject to sanctions authorized by the WTO. Proponents of the waiver say it would provide legal certainty for governments, businesses and individuals to produce life-saving footage in places that currently don’t have much access to it.

3. Who opposes the waiver?

The Chinese government has opposed US demands to explicitly exclude China from the deal. The UK and Switzerland say the waiver would hurt investment and innovation in the pharmaceutical sector. Pfizer Inc. CEO Albert Bourla said it was “crazy” that such a deal was still under consideration at a time when vaccine supply far exceeded demand. Public interest groups, including Doctors Without Borders, argue that the proposal is insufficient. For one thing, they say, it doesn’t give vaccine producers access to trade secrets. On the other hand, this does not extend to Covid-19 treatments and diagnostics.

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has actively campaigned for nations to endorse the deal and called unequal access to vaccines “morally unacceptable”. The European Union backs the deal, which it says is the best chance for a nearly two-year debate. While President Joe Biden has argued for a vaccine waiver, his administration has yet to approve the current text and faces a political backlash in Congress from Republican lawmakers who oppose it. The other two countries that helped shape the proposal – India and South Africa – also abstained from endorsing the deal, saying they wanted to reach a consensual outcome.

5. What are the main areas of disagreement?

The Biden administration wants the deal to “clearly” exclude China due to US concerns that Beijing will not honor its promise to withdraw from benefits from the deal. India, South Africa and other developing countries are keen to expand the scope of the agreement to cover therapies, diagnostics and other medicines related to Covid-19. WTO members also disagree on how long the waiver will last and whether eligible countries can export vaccines licensed under the deal.

6. Are there other ways to expand access to vaccines?

Yes. WTO members are working on a separate agreement that aims to facilitate the distribution of vaccines and essential medical products across borders. The framework aims to discourage unnecessary export restrictions and tariffs on lifesaving medical products.

7. How will the WTO decide on the waiver?

The WTO is a consensus-driven organization, so all 164 members must agree for a TRIPS waiver to be implemented. So any nation can kill the proposition for any reason. Trade ministers are expected to discuss the proposal at the WTO ministerial conference scheduled for June 12-15 in Geneva.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com

Comments are closed.