Trade rules have thwarted global efforts to fight Covid. WTO must grant vaccine intellectual property waiver | Patricia Ranald
As Australians are struggling to gain access to rapid antigen tests (RATs) and third booster shots for the Omicron strain, spare a thought for millions of people in low-income countries where only 10% have received a vaccine dose, with even less access to testing or treatment.
Member states of the World Trade Organization (WTO) will meet virtually this week to decide on a proposal from India and South Africa, backed by more than 100 countries, including the United States and the United States. Australia, for a temporary waiver from WTO rules for intellectual property monopolies on Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments.
The waiver would mean that technology and knowledge would be shared so that things like vaccines and mRNA tests could be made cheaply in those countries.
The European Union, the United Kingdom and Switzerland, solicited by pharmaceutical companieshave so far blocked the waiver.
Although the focus has been on vaccines, the Omicron strain and the recent development of new treatments demonstrated the need for equitable access to rapid tests and treatment.
The waiver is essential to allow for increased large-scale production at affordable prices in regional centers such as South Africa and India, which are already major producers of generic drugs. The credibility of the WTO is also at stake.
WTO Director General Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala acknowledged the pressure put on the WTO when she said on January 10: “The emergence of the Omicron variant, which forced us to postpone our twelfth Ministerial Conference, reminded us of the risks of leaving large swaths of the world unvaccinated. We at the WTO must now urgently step up our efforts to do our part to achieve a multilateral outcome on intellectual property and other issues to fully contribute to global efforts in the fight against Covid-19. ”
She convened urgent negotiations between the US, EU, South Africa and India to reach an agreement ahead of formal WTO meetings on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights. (Travel) Council and General Council start Feb. 23.
Only 10.6% of people in low-income countries received a dose of vaccine, and there is even less access to testing and treatment.
The move to the third booster dose in high-income countries has increased global demand for vaccines, treatments and tests. Pharmaceutical companies are again prioritizing sales in high-income countries, seeing record revenues from their monopolies.
These companies argue that current WTO rules do not need to be changed as they allow for the voluntary sharing of knowledge and technology. But mRNA vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna have have not entered into voluntary agreements under current WTO rules to share vaccine knowledge and technology with low-income countries.
After claiming it would share its new Covid-19 treatment Paxlovid, Pfizer has filed patent applications in 61 countries to block affordable generic versions.
Nor have these companies supported WHO initiatives to set up voluntary technology-sharing agreements for regional manufacturing hubs to increase global supply.
South African society Africa is part of the WHO regional hub plan, but pharmaceutical companies have not agreed to share their technology. The company is developing an mRNA vaccine from publicly available research data, but its vaccines won’t be available until 2023 or later.
Vaccine donation programs such as Covax are also needed, but they cannot meet global demand. Covax initially aimed to deliver 2 billion doses by the end of 2021 (20% of the population in 92 low-income countries). As of January 17, 2022, only 1 billion had been deliveredand only 2.8 billion had been pledged to reach 70% of the population in low-income countries with two injections in 2022.
Even if this goal is achieved, at least 3 billion additional injections will be needed for the third doses.
Current trade rules have failed to produce enough vaccines, treatments and tests, and have failed to deliver them equitably during the pandemic.
The time for change is very late. The WTO must respect the waiver to enable developing and low-income countries to access the technology and knowledge needed to produce their own vaccines, treatments and tests, and supply them at affordable prices.