Opponents of the waiver want to protect intellectual property to encourage research and innovation. Some rich regions, which are home to big pharmaceutical industries, including the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and the EU, have opposed the waiver, arguing that suspending the IP would not result in a sudden surge of vaccine supply.
“The logic of patents can be harder to defend in the face of a public health crisis, especially when there are few efficacious drugs and these remain within the patent term, that can lead to calls for the breaking or easing of patents,” WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told delegates on May 5. “The issue of equitable access to vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics is both the moral and economic issue of our time.”
The next ministerial conference was scheduled to take place in Geneva, Switzerland, this week and debate on this again. But it was postponed after Switzerland shut its borders following the discovery of the new Omicron variant, first identified by South Africa. Talks still continue 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 the WTO member nations and ensures a minimum standard of IP protection that a country must provide.
How does WTO voting work?
As of 2016, WTO has 164 members. Decisions here are normally reached through consensus and have to be unanimous. So having a majority of support does not help until every member says yes or abstains. Even one member’s ‘no’ is enough to veto any proposal.
Why do the opponents want to keep the waiver in place?
European countries make up the majority of opponents of the measure, coming out in support of IP protection to encourage business, research and innovation. They dismiss the claim that IP impedes access, and argue that vaccine equity can be achieved through voluntary licensing and countries’ donations to the Covax initiative.
“We are concerned about the pandemic. Lesser-developed and developing countries aren’t getting vaccinated fast enough. But the approach of blaming the lack of vaccine availability on the IP system, and proposing that the IP protections be set aside, is intellectually dishonest,” said David Kappos, an Obama administration official who dealt with IP matters. “Vaccine inequity is a social justice issue. Not an IP issue. Countries need to lead in the fight against Covid with pills and vaccine diplomacy.”
Experts also point out that sharing and transfer of technology and establishing the infrastructure in many of the countries to manufacture these products locally would take months, if not years. The waiver would not make any immediate impact, they argue.
What do the supporters of the waiver argue?
“We are up against the limit of manufacturing capacity. We cannot donate our way out of this. It’s not enough supply,” said said Dr. Benjamin Meier, global health policy professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “The idea that vaccine diplomacy can alone solve this without expanding manufacturing capacity does not work.”
“It’s a debate about the world we want to live in,” he added.
Lower-income countries and developing countries find themselves short on vaccine supply, with no authority to manufacture locally and isolated from the world through travel bans when they are hit with a severe wave of Covid-19 cases.
Yuanqiong Hu, Senior Legal and Policy Adviser at Doctors Without Borders (MSF), dismissed the argument that establishing manufacturing capacity after technology transfer would take time, saying countries like India are in a good shape to manufacture sooner rather than later.
What the waiver would do is reduce legal risk of being sued in Geneva over IP and allow governments to comprehensively respond to the pandemic instead of taking a piecemeal approach, she argued.
“If we use the traditional way of access, countries’ reaction to pandemic is delayed,” Hu told CNN. “Waiver will open up production of raw materials. Currently, some of it is under monopoly. In order to open up the entire value chain, we need the waiver.”
It’s 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 wishing to use it.
“The waiver would override all these complexities and allow countries to navigate production and pandemic response,” Hu added.