The TRIPS waiver: the good, the bad and the uncertain

The TRIPS waiver: the good, the bad and the uncertain
The TRIPS waiver is a vital step in expanding Covid-19 vaccine supply and will be crucial in ensuring other countries, particularly lower income countries to get immediate and urgent vaccine supplies.Courtesy: Reuters

The US and Switzerland lending their support to the TRIPS waiver may prove to be the catalyst needed to rally the other countries that have been holding out.

There has been much discussion on the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver recently, especially in the face of a cruel second Covid wave smashing through India, forcing the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer and exporter to start importing vaccines. ‘India Global Business, looked at the issue at hand in an earlier analyses when the US was considering backing India and South Africa along before the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily waive some of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, noted in April that one in four people in rich countries had been given a vaccine dose, but only one in around 500 in low-income countries had received a dose.

Now, faced with the real time footage of what this sort of delay can cause, as footage from India comes in, it is increasingly clear that unless governments take urgent action, the global supply of vaccines won’t be adequate to meet demand for a long time to come.

COVAX, the global program for equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, has so far been able to deliver only 54 million of the two billion vaccine doses it planned to distribute by the end of 2021.

Ursula Von der Leyen, said the EU was ready to discuss any proposals that address the crisis "in an effective and pragmatic manner.
Ursula Von der Leyen, said the EU was ready to discuss any proposals that address the crisis "in an effective and pragmatic manner.Courtesy: Reuters

Global support to wards TRIPS

On 6 May 2021, the US Biden administration declared its support for waiving intellectual property rights, including patents, for COVID-19 vaccine, marking a huge breaking through the deadlock in discussions with the WTO for more than six months.

Shortly afterwards, New Zealand’s trade minister Damien O'Connor also announced his country’s support on Twitter, quickly followed by Canada.

Today, Australia’s trade minister Dan Tehan said the waiver “will be an important part of trying to get a resolution in the World Trade Organisation.”

“A decision by Australia to support the waiver would indicate we value human lives more than pharmaceutical industry profits, and are committed to bringing the pandemic to an end globally.’ he said . However Australia is still to clearly announce its support to the proposal.

Meanwhile, Ursula Von der Leyen, speaking to the European University Institute in Florence, said the EU was ready to discuss any proposals that address the crisis "in an effective and pragmatic manner.

"That's why we are ready to discuss how the U.S. proposal for a waiver on intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines could help achieve that objective."

But drugmakers - who have produced coronavirus vaccines in record time - said the proposal could have the opposite effect, by disrupting a stretched and fragile supply chain.

Also of interest is that Germany, the EU's biggest economic power and home to a large pharmaceutical sector, rejected the idea, saying the reasons for the lack of vaccines were capacity and quality standards.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he was "very much in favour" of opening up intellectual property. However, a French government official said the lack of vaccines was the result of a lack of production capacity and ingredients, not of patents. "I would remind you that it is the United States that has not exported a single dose to other countries, and is now talking about lifting the patents," the official said.

Director-General of the World Trade Organisation Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala speaks during a press conference. Iweala expects the US support for COVID patent waiver will push WTO talks .
Director-General of the World Trade Organisation Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala speaks during a press conference. Iweala expects the US support for COVID patent waiver will push WTO talks .Courtesy: Reuters

Why TRIPS is important

The TRIPS waiver is a vital step in expanding vaccine manufacture and supply for the COVID-19 vaccines, and will be crucial in ensuring other countries, particularly lower income countries to get immediate and urgent vaccine supplies without being dependent on the few vaccine manufacturers who currently hold the exclusive rights to produce these vaccines and dominate the global supply.

While some of these companies have entered into licensing arrangements with other manufacturers to increase production, such as AstraZeneca’s contracts allowing CSL in Australia and the Serum Institute of India to make its vaccine, others have not.

Of more concern is that no pharmaceutical company has taken steps to share its intellectual property, and technological know-how through the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool, a platform set up by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for this purpose almost a year ago.

The proposal to waive TRIPS was first put forward by India and South Africa and gained support from over a 100 of the WTO’s 164 members in the following six months. However, a few countries have held out until now - the US, the E U, the UK, Switzerland, Japan, Brazil, Norway and Australia.

However with the US and Switzerland now backing the waiver and Australia on the edge to do will lend heft towards the proposal, putting more pressure on the other countries still holding out to comply.

While the waiver is a huge step, it is not the solution. Governments  will need to invest in building production capacity in low- and middle-income countries and find solutions to problems like shortages of raw ingredient.
While the waiver is a huge step, it is not the solution. Governments will need to invest in building production capacity in low- and middle-income countries and find solutions to problems like shortages of raw ingredient.Courtesy: Reuters

The bad

While the waiver has been a huge step towards global cooperation and collaboration during crisis it is not and must not be treated as a silver bullet. While opening up the possibility of production via the waiver may be a start, it is not a guarantee that enough manufacturers will be found to take up production. This type of technology transfer may be best achieved via voluntary licences – in which manufacturers provide manufactures with the know-how to produce their vaccines – as has already been done by AstraZenca

Manufactures in emerging economies will need to be supported with the technology to actually produce the vaccines. This is particularly true of the newer mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer and Moderna, which are difficult to manufacture.

Governments will need to invest in building production capacity in low- and middle-income countries and find solutions to problems like shortages of raw ingredients, rather than relying on the market to solve these structural problems.

Governments in developed countries will also need to incentivise pharmaceutical companies to share their knowledge of manufacturing processes and their technology through initiatives like the WHO Technology Access Pool.

However at this point, the focus will remain on winning the support of the remaining countries standing in the way for the TRIPS waiver. Once consensus is reached, it will be important for the negotiations to be transparent, with draft texts shared publicly, as the benefits that flow from the waiver will rely on the detail of its wording.

Negotiations will also need to progress at speed as covid continues to rampage at an alarming rate. Another prolonged delay might truly prove deadly for the world.

*this story contains excerpts from Reuters and the The Conversation

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