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By: Isabel Nuesse

COVID-19 has killed over 1.7M people and infected more than 77M globally. Just this last month, the promise of a vaccine seems to bring renewed hope that the days of isolation and struggle may soon come to an end. However, as the roll-out of these technologies begins, it’s not a coincidence that they are being deployed to the wealthier nations, first.

This trend is not new. 

Historically, lack of access to affordable health care medicines for the global population has been a recurrent concern – especially since the World Trade Organization (WTO) created the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (“TRIPS”)  agreement. This agreement was created to strengthen the protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights (IPRs). 

What is the significance of the TRIPS agreement today?

The COVID-19 vaccine is patented and many lower to mid-level income countries simply cannot afford it. The alternative is to create a generic version of the vaccine at a more affordable cost. This is only possible if IPRs on COVID-19 vaccines are eliminated.

India and South Africa have already requested a waiver to remove the IPRs on these medicines and technologies that prevent, contain, and treat COVID-19.

This proposal essentially calls for solidarity amongst governments around the globe to make access to the vaccine equitable and affordable, without the threat of sanctions or being found in violation of international trade rules. 

The waiver proposal has been extended from its initial December 31, 2020 expiration date. As of now, 9 countries oppose this waiver: the United States, Switzerland, Japan, Norway, the United Kingdom, Canada,  Australia, Brazil, and the European Union. These are seemingly countries that do not have to worry about affordability with the vaccine. Likely, they even house the multinational corporations that produce the vaccine. Therefore, they may stand to benefit from keeping the IRPs in the hands of the pharmaceutical companies.  

The significance of this waiver brings about an important point. As it stands, the TRIPS agreement places the goal of free trade above the needs of the people. At what point does the intellectual property of medicines and technologies take precedence over saving lives? 

Christian Felber recently gave a talk on the transitions that need to be made in order to support Ethical World Trade, a key component of a Wellbeing Economy. Mainly, trade cannot be the end, but rather, a means to the end. The goal of international trade should be to support human flourishing, not to support free trade. Read the recap of the event here.

One interesting example of when such a goal has been effectively pursued was with the WHO and the TRIPS agreement was during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the early 2000’s. The initial offer from the pharmaceutical provider of HIV/AIDS medication requested the Brazilian government pay $1.59 per pill. But, Brazil saw that it could get the medicines made from India for $0.45 per pill which would enable them to distribute the drug more widely. However, because of how the TRIPS treaty works, the pharmaceutical provider has monopoly rights over the distribution of the drug. This meant that Brazil had to pay the $1.59 to the pharmaceutical provider, even though the generic brand was available at a lower cost. TRIPS institutes the monopoly power for the pharmaceutical provider so that companies don’t lose out on the expensive research and development costs (even though much of this research is publicly funded). **to learn more about this see Mariana Mazzucato’s work on the public funding seeding investment for the private sector. Here is an article in Time Magazine as well. 

Brazil’s president stated that he was not willing to sacrifice the health of his country’s citizens for the sake of world trade. 

After this debate, international leaders met for the Doha Declaration in November of 2001 and formally established that the TRIPS agreement should be interpreted and implemented to promote public health.

The Compulsory Licensing Provision within the TRIPS agreement now allows developing countries to produce or buy generic versions of the patented medication, which inevitably reduces the cost of the medicine. Each country can determine the grounds on which the compulsory licencing may be granted. These could be on the grounds of national emergency, extreme poverty, public non-commercial use, and to remedy anti-competitive practices. 

The precedent that this case study set is of concern for many nations. Having strong IPRs over pharmaceuticals prevents people from low to middle income countries from having access to life-saving medication. So, it is important to allow generic manufacturers to override patent holder rights in certain situations. 

Where does this leave us, in regards to the COVID-19 vaccine?

The vote on whether to eliminate IPRs for the COVID-19 vaccines will take place in the next few months, and coalitions amongst countries are already being made. Luckily the WHO has a policy for one vote per country. 

If you’re interested in learning more about international trade issues, please check out the organizations below:

Regions Refocus

Third World Network

DAWN

SEATINI

Bretton Woods Project

Gender and Trade Coalition

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