The governments of the world’s wealthiest countries—including the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom—are facing growing backlash for continuing to block an India and South Africa-led proposal to temporarily waive a restrictive global intellectual property rights agreement, an effort aimed at spurring broad-based production of coronavirus vaccines and getting the shots to poor nations struggling to administer a single dose.
According to Oxfam International, a member of the People’s Vaccine Alliance, “rich countries are vaccinating at a rate of one person per second yet are siding with a handful of pharmaceutical corporations in protecting their monopolies against the needs of the majority of developing countries.”
“It is unforgivable that while people are literally
fighting for breath, rich country governments continue to block what
could be a vital breakthrough in ending this pandemic for everyone in
rich and poor countries alike.”
—Anna Marriott, Oxfam
On Thursday—the one-year anniversary of the WHO’s official global pandemic declaration—representatives from the U.S. and other wealthy nations teamed up to thwart, once again, the push by more than 100 member nations of the World Trade Organization to suspend certain provisions of the so-called TRIPS Agreement, an intellectual property rights arrangement.
“The proposal was co-sponsored by 57 countries in the trade group and on Thursday support split largely along the lines of the WTO’s self-identified developed and developing countries,” Law360 reported. “The only developing country to oppose the waiver was Brazil.”
Supporters of the waiver argue the prohibitive patent rights that governments have granted to private pharmaceutical companies are standing in the way of the kind of global vaccination campaign needed to stop the spread of a virus that does not respect borders. Fearing the emergence and normalization of “vaccine apartheid,” the head of the WHO and others have raised alarm over the fact that more than 100 poor nations have not yet been able to start inoculating their populations.
“It is unforgivable that while people are literally fighting for breath, rich country governments continue to block what could be a vital breakthrough in ending this pandemic for everyone in rich and poor countries alike,” Anna Marriott, Oxfam’s health policy manager, said in a statement.
“During a pandemic that is devastating lives across the planet,” added Marriott, “governments should be using their powers now, not tomorrow, to remove intellectual property rules and ensure pharmaceutical companies work together to share technology and fix raw material shortages, all of which are standing in the way of a massive scale-up in production.”
Despite a fierce lobbying campaign by the pharmaceutical industry in the U.S. and elsewhere, support for the India-South Africa proposal has grown since the effort was first tabled in October, with dozens of U.S. members of Congress and more than 100 members of the European Parliament joining a supermajority of WTO member nations in backing the idea. Voicing support for the proposal, one commentator recently called it “an existential threat to the continuing practice of treating medicines as a commodity.”
“There is no reason we have to prioritize the profits of pharmaceutical companies over the dignity of people in other countries,” U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told the New York Times last week.
In a video released on Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) urged President Joe Biden to support the TRIPS waiver, arguing that “ending this pandemic requires collaboration, solidarity, and empathy.”
“It is unconscionable,” said Sanders, “that amid a global health crisis, huge multibillion dollar pharmaceutical companies continue to prioritize profits by protecting their monopolies and driving up prices rather than prioritizing the lives of people everywhere, including in the Global South.”
As the Corporate Europe Observatory reported, “If know-how and vaccine recipes are shared, generic manufacturers could start supplying the countries in the back of the queue, for instance the 85 nations set to receive vaccines only in two years time.”
“Had it not been for the stiff resistance by the U.S., Switzerland, Norway, and not least the E.U., that vision could have become a reality,” the organization noted. “But the European Commission has shown no sign of budging at the WTO negotiations. At a meeting in Geneva on 11 March the E.U.’s rejection was reiterated.”
With the U.S. facing accusations of vaccine hoarding as it buys up enough supply to inoculate the eligible population twice over—and refuses to donate excess doses to countries pleading for them—Biden on Friday announced an agreement with Japan, India, and Australia to bolster global vaccine production with the stated goal of remedying shortages in Southeast Asia.
As the Times reported, “the Biden administration committed to providing financial support to help Biological E, a major vaccine manufacturer in India, produce at least one billion doses of coronavirus vaccines by the end of 2022.”
While viewed as a welcome addition to lagging global vaccination efforts, the deal falls well short of the sweeping recipe-sharing that experts and activists say is required to ensure that no one is denied access to a life-saving shot.
Calling the new agreement a “step in the right direction,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said Saturday that Biden must now “take the next step and endorse the TRIPS waiver.”
“The waiver is supported by over 100 countries and being opposed by only a handful of rich countries,” Schakowsky noted. “The world needs as much vaccine manufacturing capacity as it can get. Time is of the essence.”