The battle for Covid-19 vaccines: The rich prevail over the poor


The 164-member World Trade Organization (WTO) has implicitly rubber-stamped a widely-condemned policy of “vaccine apartheid” which has discriminated the world’s poorer nations, mostly in Africa and Asia, depriving them of any wide-ranging intellectual property rights.

As Max Lawson, Co-Chair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance and Head of Inequality Policy at Oxfam, said at the conclusion of the WTO’s ministerial meeting last week: “The conduct of rich countries at the WTO has been utterly shameful”.

“The European Union (EU) has blocked anything that resembles a meaningful intellectual property waiver. The UK and Switzerland have used negotiations to twist the knife and make any text even worse. And the US has sat silently in negotiations with red lines designed to limit the impact of any agreement.”

The Geneva-based WTO, whose members account for nearly 98 percent of world trade, takes decisions by consensus resulting in a rash of compromises on some of the disputed issues.

Lawson said: “This is absolutely not the broad intellectual property waiver the world desperately needs to ensure access to vaccines and treatments for everyone, everywhere. The EU, UK, US, and Switzerland blocked that text.”

This so-called compromise, he argued, largely reiterates developing countries’ existing rights to override patents in certain circumstances. And it tries to restrict even that limited right to countries which do not already have capacity to produce COVID-19 vaccines.

“Put simply, it is a technocratic fudge aimed at saving reputations, not lives”, he warned.

Summing up the conclusions of the meeting, the New York Times said last week that WTO members agreed to loosen intellectual property rights “to allow developing countries to manufacture patented Covid-19 vaccines under certain circumstances.”

”The issue of relaxing intellectual property rights for vaccines had become highly controversial. It pitted the pharmaceutical industry and developed countries that are home to their operations, particularly in Europe, against civil society organizations (CSOs) and delegates from India and South Africa.”

Oxfam’s Lawson said: “South Africa and India have led a 20-month fight for the rights of developing countries to manufacture and access vaccines, tests, and treatments. It is disgraceful that rich countries have prevented the WTO from delivering a meaningful agreement on vaccines and have dodged their responsibility to take action on treatments while people die without them.”

“There are some worrying new obligations in this text that could actually make it harder for countries to access vaccines in a pandemic. We hope that developing countries will now take bolder action to exercise their rights to override vaccine intellectual property rules and, if necessary, circumvent them to save lives.”

In a statement released last week, the People’s Vaccine Alliance, said waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines have sparked worldwide debate, from Washington to Beijing and Davos to the World Trade Organization.

A group of Nobel laureates wrote to President Biden arguing that a temporary waiver of COVID-19 patent rights is essential to halting the global pandemic.

“Waiver advocates say that prioritizing the intellectual property rights of vaccine developers (many of whom have received governmental support) is making the vaccination rollout slow and unaffordable for billions of people in less-wealthy nations”.

Supporters of the status quo say a waiver would chill investment in the very pharmaceutical research that led to the vaccines’ creation, the Alliance said.

Inter Press Service for more

Comments are closed.