The World of International Organizations

WTO delays IP waiver proposal for pandemic

World Trade Organization headquarters in Geneva (AN/John Heilprin)
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A proposal by South Africa and India for the World Trade Organization to suspend IP protections of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments is set to die down this month, kicking the crucial issue over to 2021.

The two nations asked the 164-nation WTO in October for an annual waiver of parts of the 1995 TRIPS Agreement, a major intellectual property agreement that covers copyright and related rights for music and broadcasting; trademarks and geography, patents, industrial designs and circuit layouts; and commercial trade secrets and test data.

The idea is to try to eliminate some of the barriers that developing nations face in doing their own research and development and in gaining access to some of the more affordable and timely coronavirus vaccines and treatments.

The TRIPS agreement introduced “substantive and comprehensive disciplines” on IP rights into the multilateral trading system, according to a WTO treatise in 2015. “It had a significant impact on national intellectual property (IP) regimes the world over,” WTO said, “with the most significant changes experienced in the developing world.”

With the backing of Bolivia, eSwatini, Kenya, Mozambique and Pakistan, proponents asked WTO to waive copyright and related rights, industrial designs, patents and protection of undisclosed information until COVID-19 vaccinations make most of the world population immune. Delegates would review the waiver each year, until it is no longer needed.

The proposal sparked considerable debate among members of WTO’s highest-level decision-making body, the General Council, starting in mid-October. Despite holding informal meetings and “intense consultations” in late November and early December, delegates were unable to reach consensus on what to do, WTO officials said in a statement.

The council had 90 days to consider the October 2 waiver request. That means it will lapse on the last day of 2020. But WTO officials said delegates “agreed on continued consideration of the proposal” at a meeting to be held in March.

“The proponents argued that IP protection hindered the urgent scale-up of vaccine production,” WTO officials said. Some wealthier nations argued that IP was “only one aspect of many that affected the manufacture and distribution of the new vaccines.” Australia, Canada, Chile and Mexico pushed for continued “significant consideration” of the issue.

Risk of being ‘left behind’

Two weeks after the waiver request was put forward, the global pharmaceutical industry’s trade group weighed in against it. Some of the nations that have begun vaccination programs have also opposed the waiver request.

The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, or IFPMA, said current IP protections are essential to “enabling innovation and collaboration” as the industry confronts the COVID-19 pandemic.

“IP will also continue to play a crucial role long after this pandemic is over, to ensure that the world is prepared with innovative solutions for future global health crisis, in addition to other pressing healthcare needs,” the Geneva-based trade group said in a statement.

“While we share the objective of equitable access to medicines, we disagree with the premise that IP rights are potential barriers to R&D, public-private collaborations or access to COVID-19 products,” it said. “Our experience shows the opposite.”

Proponents of the waiver request, however, argue the billion-dollar vaccines that the drug makers are developing have received huge levels of public and charitable funding.

A group of international organizations, including Amnesty International, Frontline AIDS, Global Justice Now and Oxfam, said its analysis of deals between nations and eight leading vaccine candidates showed 67 low and lower middle-income countries “risk being left behind” as vaccines shown to be safe and effective are rolled out.

They called on all drug makers and research institutions that have been working on coronavirus vaccines to share the science, technological know-how, and intellectual property so that all can benefit.

“No one should be blocked from getting a life-saving vaccine because of the country they live in or the amount of money in their pocket,” Anna Marriott, Oxfam’s health policy manager, said in a statement.

The COVAX Facility, a multilateral effort co-led by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, World Health Organization and Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, has been trying to line up billions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine candidates for low-income and developing countries.

The aim of COVAX is to accelerate the development and production of COVID-19 vaccines and to guarantee all nations will have fair and equitable access. But the organizations behind the effort have said the first deliveries will not arrive until the first quarter of 2021, with the first tranche of doses — enough to protect health and social care workers — due to be delivered by summer among all nations that requested doses in this time frame.

The next deliveries would come in the second half of the year, the organizations said, making for enough doses to cover up to a fifth of some nations’ populations. More doses would be available in 2022, though all the deliveries depend on regulatory approval.

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