As the coronavirus pandemic intensified, representatives of the World Trade Organization regularly gathered around virtual tables to clash about ways to more equitably increase global access to vaccines.
On the one hand, there are the United States and other predominantly wealthy western democracies, home to major pharmaceutical companies developing major vaccine-related medical technologies. They want to maintain the corporate secret of vaccines, the status quo that intellectual property is at hand to maintain profits and incentives for future development.
On the other side are South Africa and India, leading prosecutions on behalf of a huge number of countries that lack or have limited supply of vaccine doses or other equipment to combat the virus. They argue that other parts of the world cannot continue to wait for life-saving shots that Western nations are monopolizing by buying existing supplies and pre-purchasing future rounds.
Given the seriousness of the global public health crisis, the latter camp wants to resort to an emergency exemption mechanism. This will temporarily suspend intellectual property rights to manufacture vaccines and related medicines, theoretically increasing production and distribution. More equitable in factories around the world.
This is a very technical issue, validating the WTO’s agreement on TRIPS interpretation, trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights, and increasing vigilance against vaccination competition for developing countries. What you are doing is symbolic.
In the short term, waiver of intellectual property rights alone will not solve the problem of vaccine inequality and shortages in the Southern Hemisphere. However, using lessons learned during the HIV / AIDS crisis, experts say that by preventing subsequent shortages and now signaling the need for collective action, it could have widespread implications. Stated.
“Developing countries are already fed up with their perception that Western selfishness is buying all the demand. [that] “They have to go back in line,” said David Fiddler, a part-time senior researcher in cybersecurity and global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They are having such a silly conversation at the WTO. How to deal with this human blunder. “
Meanwhile, he added, “access to unfair vaccines will worsen.”
When the WTO was founded in 1995, public health experts were concerned that many of the global agency agreements would empower private sectors and ultimately harm public health. Over time, many aspects have largely resolved the differences, except what is called “troublesome pain” when it comes to intellectual property, Fiddler said.
The pain proved deadly during the HIV / AIDS epidemic. By the 1990s, antiviral drugs were available to combat infectious diseases, but due to production restrictions under patent regulations, they were very expensive to access for most infected people in sub-Saharan Africa. did.
In 2001, an agreement was finally reached. Called the Doha Declaration, the WTO clarified that “the TRIPS Agreement must and should not prevent member governments from acting to protect public health.” The amendment stipulates that countries can seek compulsory licenses (a way for governments to waive their intellectual property rights without the consent of the patent owner) in the event of a domestic or other extreme emergency. He also explained the mechanism by which businesses continue to receive compensation.
The Doha Declaration has helped reduce the cost of HIV / AIDS drugs that save the lives of the most devastated victims. With the US program PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) passed in 2003, these collective actions have begun to change the course of treatable illnesses that ruin the lives of millions of people in poor countries. It was.
The WTO’s actions set a precedent, said Yuan Qiong Hu, legal counsel for Doctors Without Borders Access Campaign advocating WTO coronavirus exemption. But countries with the power to make a difference were too late for too many to stagnate in lowering prices.
“It could have been better if they took action sooner. We could have saved more lives,” she said. “Awareness of the challenges is purely a matter of political will.”
The coronavirus pandemic, unlike the AIDS epidemic, is not concentrated in low-income countries. Rather, it affects all countries competing for the same resources at the same time.
It’s time to act so that “inappropriate use of intellectual property” does not lead to “artificial supply shortages,” said Mustaquim de Gama, an intellectual property expert and WTO representative for South Africa. That’s why.
TRIPS acknowledges that all countries have the right to “give access to the medicines, equipment and technologies needed to address covid-19”, he said. He said the WTO exemption would strengthen that principle and allow countries to prepare to start their own production without having to wait for richer countries to first meet their vaccine orders. It was.
“Tax-bearing power should not be a deciding factor for access,” Hu said. Instead, WTO actions could “allow countries to prepare to produce and share resources.”
A spokesperson for the US Trade Representative did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
South Africa was an exception as the epicenter of the continent when it came to officially counting coronavirus infections and deaths, but Africa as a whole has not been hit as hard as Europe and North America. However, De Gama said the facts alone provide an incomplete picture of the effects of a pandemic on people in countries that do not have sufficient medical resources or government relief during the pandemic. Currently added to the list: Unattainable coronavirus vaccine dose.
From a public health perspective, this also poses a global danger, Degama said.
“It’s not that developed countries isolate themselves by vaccination of the entire population and don’t care what’s happening in other parts of the world,” he said. He added that the global threat is even greater, given that “there are variants now, and these variants were caused by a virus infection among millions of people.”
However, Fiddler did not agree that intellectual property rights would directly impede access to the vaccine. In the short term, he said, the problem is not just limited production, as only certain companies can produce vaccines under certain restrictions. Rather, Western countries are monopolizing current and future supplies by purchasing and pre-purchasing doses at rates that no other country can afford.
But he said he was still concerned that the WTO’s impasse could further erode the status of the United States while endangering developing countries. When the United States takes a “bold position,” as with PEPFAR, “this allows us to focus on the capabilities needed for the current and next crisis and restore some confidence,” the United States promises to help. ..
Instead, Washington appears to be surrounded by domestic pressure and sticking to our stance on them at the WTO, as the world faces a “huge blunder for human health.” He said.
“It looks like 1995 again,” Fidler said, citing the HIV / AIDS epidemic. “What’s happening here?”