Almost two years ago, in October 2020India and South Africa proposed that the World Trade Organization (WTO) suspend key intellectual property rules to allow poor countries access to cheaper, generic versions of Covid-19 Vaccines, tests and treatments as they become available. The idea was that patents, copyrights and other forms of intellectual property should not be a barrier to access in the face of a global and highly deadly pandemic. The proposal became known as the TRIPS waiver, which is a reference to the trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights, the WTO agreement that governs intellectual property rules.
This suggestion was followed 20 long months of stagnation and sporadic negotiations — and obstruction and inaction by wealthy countries, including the United States and the European Union. More than 100 Countries, among which the Global South was heavily represented, backed the proposal, and global health activists called for swift passage to save countless lives. But negotiations continued to falter, even as vaccines and then antivirals rolled out, while inequalities in global access unfolded exactly as the proposal’s supporters had feared. The pharmaceutical industry aggressively opposed the TRIPS waiver, fearing that any challenge to its monopolistic control over intellectual property would erode corporate profits. An estimate 120 Facilities in Asia, Latin America and Africa that were able to produce mRNA vaccines did not do so simply because companies did not provide them with the recipes and know-how needed to manufacture the life-saving products.
In June 17, 2022The WTO finally made a decision on the issue and it came as a deep disappointment to global health campaigners.
The decision is so watered down that it bears little resemblance to the original proposal for a TRIPS waiver. It merely reaffirms pre-existing compulsory license rights relating to governments allowing the manufacture of goods without the permission of a patentee. The decision allows Covid vaccines to be exported to eligible countries indefinitely and makes it a little less hassle to ship them. But the deal excludes all developed countries as well as those who have opted out, such as China. Tests and treatments — including Paxlovid, a potent antiviral therapy — are also left out. And the deal puts additional restrictions on countries’ ability to divert imports to other nations, though it reportedly includes a humanitarian exception. For example, if a country ordered too many vaccine doses and then wanted to ship some of the leftover doses back to another country, the deal would prevent them from doing so, except for humanitarian, charitable reasons.
The deal does not include a robust intellectual property waiver, nor does it specifically mandate the sharing of trade secrets and manufacturing know-how. Its benefits are as tiny as throwing a single lifebuoy to save all the passengers on a capsized ship. According to Robert Kuttner, reporting for The American Prospectusthe staff of US Trade Representative Katherine Tai “spent several days trying to get some interest group to comment kindly on the WTO text. Everyone declined.”
The outcome of this long and arduous process, health activists warn, does not bode well not only for this pandemic, but for future ones as well. A model has been created in which, regardless of the extent of suffering and death or the extent to which global health is interconnected, pharmaceutical gains are prioritized over human lives. “By not being fully resolved, the current crisis sets a negative precedent for addressing future global health challenges,” said Ava Alkon, policy adviser at Médecins Sans Frontières-USA, a humanitarian medical organization In these times. Tian Johnson, South Africa-based founder and strategist of the African Alliance, a social justice organization that operates across the African continent, agrees. “This is a massive setback to the cause of global health justice, which will take decades to recover from,” Johnson said.
It’s easy to blame pharmaceutical companies that have aggressively opposed any meaningful waiver while reaping staggering profits as the world faced a grossly uneven distribution of life-saving Covid goods. But a significant part of the blame also rests with the states that bowed to big pharma. After all, industry will always behave in ways that benefit shareholders and not public health, as we saw during the AIDS crisis. It is up to the elected governments to contain this industry and act in the interests of the people.
The European Union, along with Switzerland and the United Kingdom, was a huge obstacle to good business. But according to Achal Prabhala, the India-based coordinator of the Accessibsa project, which aims to expand access to medicines, the United States bears the lion’s share of the blame. “The Biden administration was by far the greatest and worst negotiator on this deal, but in private,” he said In these times via email. “The United States alone has the credit for curbing vaccine obsolescence; China’s exclusion from this deal (which makes no sense if we’re just trying to improve vaccine access by increasing production, wherever it comes from) is also thanks to the United States alone. To top it all off, the United States has also delayed clarifying its position or even starting negotiations on the actual text.”
There is also the question of what the United States Not do. Alkon of Médecins Sans Frontières-USA argues that the United States should have done so “has used its impressive power in the negotiation process to ensure that the agreement applies to all forms when intellectual property is needed, to enable the production and supply of needed medical products and to cover all countries with production capacities without exceptions.”
Even those hoping the deal might bring some minor benefits ended up sounding disappointed. Prabhala says the decision is for the WTO “inadequate when it comes to vaccines, incomplete because treatments are left out, and far too late, though he argues “it is of very little use.” He hopes some of its provisions might “Supporting existing late-stage vaccine efforts, particularly in the mRNA space.”
Ultimately, he wants countries in the Global South to follow Brazil’s example by passing legislation that will allow them to overcome any obstacles at the WTO and move ahead with compulsory licensing at full speed (although it’s important to note that Brazil’s efforts are endorsed by the President were stopped). Jair Bolsonaro). Developing countries must stop acting “like little puppies that need help and charity,” he says, taking matters into his own hands.
Others, like Johnson, say health activists need a campaign to prevent enforcement of restrictive WTO rules. “Regarding Biden, our call to US allies would be to urge them not to enforce the bad deal and take a principled stand of solidarity,” he said In these times.
Ultimately, the deal raises fundamental concerns about the WTO as an institution. “It was mid1990s, the height of free-market capitalism, when the answer to every problem was more markets, more private sector, less government bureaucracy,” notes Nick Dearden, director of advocacy Global Justice Now. This “Market Knows Best” ideology has deeply failed the world, Dearden argues, a point protesters have made in recent years1990s and early 2000s in massive global mobilizations against the institution. According to Johnson, the WTO “has once again proven to be a vehicle for protecting powerful self-interests.”
These vested interests are not limited to Big Pharma. Another global crisis, climate change, is upon us, and it too will require the sharing of technology and intellectual property if humanity is to have any hope of mitigating its worst effects. “The whole world is better off when we all have green technology,” said Brook Baker, a Northeastern University professor who also serves as a senior policy analyst for Health GAP, a health equity organization In these times. “If rich countries can control green technologies to prioritize their deployment in high-income countries, that’s good for their profits, but not good for the world.”
Bill Gates, a prominent opponent of the TRIPS waiver, is also an influential figure in the design “Solutions” for the climate crisis. in the 2015 He helped found Breakthrough Energy, which bills itself as a network “united by a shared commitment to scale the technologies we need to achieve a path to net-zero emissions 2050.” Tackling climate change requires sharing technology and habitability of the planet over the pursuit of profit. What does it mean that a powerful figure in the green tech world is opposed to intellectual property sharing?
Likewise, green technology and renewable energy companies are members of organizations that have campaigned against the TRIPS waiver. The Intellectual Property Owners Association, an international trade association, was part of an effort to oppose any robust intellectual property renunciation as late as March. The board of the association has one member from Evoqua Water Technologies, a green technology company, and counts among its members green technology companies BASF, Ecolab and Evoqua Water Technologies. While it’s not clear what role these companies played in setting association policy, their membership alone should be a red flag to anyone concerned about what green tech monopolies might mean for an ever-warming world.
As with the Covid pandemic – let alone the next, potentially deadlier one – climate change means no one is safe until we are all safe. Alkon warns “This outcome has emerged from a flawed, exclusionary and opaque process that we also fear may repeat itself.”