COVID-19 vaccine patents dominate global trade talks

BRUSSELS — World Trade Organization (WTO) members will assess on Wednesday signs of progress in talks on a proposal by South Africa and India to waive patent rights on coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccines in order to boost supply to developing countries.

They want to ease rules of the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) agreement. WTO decisions are based on consensus, so all 164 members need to agree.

Ten meetings in seven months have failed to produce a breakthrough, with 60 proposal sponsors from emerging economies, backed by a chorus of campaign groups, Nobel laureates, and former world leaders, pitted against richer developed countries, such as Switzerland, the United States, and in the European Union, where many pharmaceutical companies are based.

WHERE ARE THE TALKS NOW?

After a tenth round of talks on April 30, the waiver proposal’s backers said they would revise their text from October in time for the next TRIPS council meeting in the second half of May before a further discussion on June 8-9.

The new text could be more limited than the current proposal.

Norway’s ambassador Dagfinn Sorli, the council chair who will brief Wednesday’s WTO General Council, expressed “careful optimism.”

World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus talked on Monday of “encouraging progress,” but said the process needed to be completed as soon as possible. The WHO said in April that of 700 million vaccines globally administered, only 0.2% had been in low-income countries.

THE PROPONENTS ARGUMENT

The Indian/South African proposal in October says property rights such as patents, industrial designs, copyright, and protection of undisclosed information hinder timely access to affordable vaccines and medicines essential to combat COVID-19.

They say the waiver should last for an unspecified time period, with an annual review until it terminates, and call for unhindered global sharing of technology and know-how.

They say there cannot be a repeat of the early years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, when a lack of access to life-saving medicines cost at least 11 million African lives.

The WHO head and 375 civil society and campaign groups such as Doctors Without Borders back the proposal and former leaders from Britain’s Gordon Brown to Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union have jointly written to US President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., urging him to support it.

THE COUNTER VIEW

Big drug companies oppose patent waivers, as do Britain, Switzerland and the United States. The main Western producers are Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, and jointly Pfizer and BioNTech.

They say vaccine development is unpredictable and costly and that strong IP protection helped provide the incentive for the development of vaccines in record time and will do so again in work on tackling new variants or in a future pandemic.

Proponents counter that some of the money was public funds.

Big Pharma also says vaccine-making is difficult — witness the production problems non-specialist AstraZeneca has faced — so suspending patents alone will not bring more shots.

Complex vaccines require deep cooperation between developers and manufacturers. Any failure to make them properly could undermine public confidence in vaccine safety, they say.

They also point to over 260 partnership agreements already in place for production and distribution and comment that, under the existing TRIPS agreement, governments can allow producers to make a patented product without the consent of the patent owner. Developing countries have such “compulsory licences” to push down prices for HIV/AIDS medication from 2002 to 2007.

The situation though is fluid. In Brazil, the only developing country to oppose the waiver, the Senate has passed a bill to suspend COVID-19 vaccine patents. It has become quieter at the WTO since April.

The White House said last week it was considering options to maximise global supply of vaccines, including backing the waiver.

THIRD WAY

WTO director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has suggested a “third way” as a compromise, laying out global action to increase vaccine access after a meeting with producers, governments, and others.

She urged vaccine makers to increase technology transfer to bring in new manufacturing capacity and to be transparent on contracts and pricing.

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai told the same meeting that extraordinary times required courage and sacrifice from governments and leaders — but also from industry. On Tuesday, she said economic recovery depended on addressing global vaccine inequity. — Philip Blenkinsop/Reuters

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