As debate over a proposal to temporarily waive intellectual property protections for COVID vaccines and treatments continues to stall at the World Trade Organization (WTO), members that remain opposed — including the United Kingdom, Switzerland and the European Union — are increasingly being accused of violating human rights on an international scale.
The Omicron variant, which was first identified in South Africa, is causing feverish calls for the WTO approval of the TRIPS waiver. Omicron has caused travel bans around the world and inflamed tensions about massive global disparities regarding vaccine access. Experts and advocates have warned for months that Omicron would allow the virus’ spread from lower-income countries, where vaccines are still out of reach for most people.
Yet Moderna has refused to share the “recipe” for its COVID mRNA vaccine with a South African biotech firm and a World Health Organization (WHO) effort in Africa to transfer the technology necessary for making vaccines to African nations, where less than 1 in 10 peopleAt least one dose of the vaccine has been given to them. In the United States and Europe, monopolies on the crucial technology and know-how needed to make vaccines largely remains controlled by private pharmaceutical companies that received billions of dollars from wealthy governments to develop vaccines — and are now pulling in billions in global profit.
“The spread of new variants is the direct result of the staggering inequitable access to vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics and other products needed to treat and contain the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Sangeeta Shashikant, a policy advisor for the Third World Network, in a call with reporters last week. “Intellectual property monopolies are causing the inequity.”
Leaders of the Global Nurses Union (2.5 million health care workers from 28 countries), and the left coalition Progressive InternationalSend it to letter to the UN Human Rights Council on Monday decrying global “vaccine apartheid” and demanding an investigation into the countries that continue to block the TRIPS waiver at the WTO. The pandemic has caused a “staggering” number of deaths, the labor and political leaders wrote, with hundreds of thousands of frontline health care workers among them.
“It is now clear: Continued opposition to the patent waiver is resulting in the violation of human rights of peoples across the world,” they wrote.
The Council of Global Unions, which represents around 200 million workers worldwide released a similar release a statementMonday: urged the U.K. to stop opposing the European Union, Switzerland, and Germany Critics and U.S. lawmakersargued that the EU represents Germany and its deeply rooted pharmaceutical industry by opposing TRIPS waiver. Last week, human right attorneys threatenedIf Canada, Norway, Germany, and the U.K. refuse to support the waiver, they can take legal action under international rights law.
Ironically, a meeting of WTO trade minsters with vaccines on the agenda was delayed this week due Omicron and new travel restrictions in Switzerland. Geneva hosts WTO meetings. Advocacy groups demanded that the meeting be canceled because trade ministers from countries that need vaccines were unable to attend. WTO leaders assured that negotiations would continue. The WTO council on intellectual propriety rights met on Monday.
Deborah James, a Center for Economic and Policy Research international trade expert, says that Omicron variants could have thrived if the WTO had adopted the waiver back in 2020. If there was a waiver, manufacturers would have already increased the production of generic jabs that are available for distribution in low-income countries. Still, a ministerial meeting is not needed to approve the waiver, and James said the WTO General Council could do so “this week.”
“You couldn’t make this up if it were a novel,” James said in an interview. “It just shouldn’t be a trade organization that is deciding these things. You know the WTO has a default of always making decisions in favor of corporations.”
Omicron was born with its many mutationsThe World Health Organization, a South African biotech company, and Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention were already working together to create an mRNA vaccine technology “transfer hub” as part of an effort to replicate Moderna’s vaccine and allow African countries to create their own supply of shots. South Africa’s vaccination rate, just under 25 percent of the population, lags behind most wealthy nations but is still among the highestAfrica.
The biotech company working withThe WHO, Afrigen Biotech, hopes to create a vaccine that is less expensive than Moderna’s and will not need to be kept frozen, making doses easier to distribute in lower-income countries, according to the Washington Post. Moderna has refused permission to share its vaccine recipe and other knowledge with Afrigen. This would enable Afrigen develop a generic vaccine much more quickly, due to intellectual property protections. Moderna would also be able to compete with Afrigen on the largely untapped market in lower-income countries.
In October 2020, South Africa and India introduced a WTO resolution which would temporarily suspend international intellectual property rules for COVID treatments and vaccines. This resolution is supported by around 100 countries. Proponents claim that the waiver would allow both manufacturers and lower-income countries to negotiate with existing manufacturers.
According to the Duke Global Health Innovation Center (DGHIC), wealthy nations have purchased almost 7 billion vaccines, while countries with low income have access to around 300 million.
Current South African and Indian vaccine manufacturers operate under strict licensing agreements that include pharmaceutical companies from wealthy countries that have invested heavily in developing. These agreements can be negotiated in some cases. forced both countriesExport doses to richer countries, instead of serving their own people.
President Joe Biden declared Friday that he supports a waiver of vaccine patents at WTO. However, critics note the U.S. has not backed India and South Africa’s proposal specifically, and say intellectual property protections for COVID tests and treatments must also be waived. Biden has stated repeatedly that the U.S. has donated more jabs to other nations than any other, but Democrats in CongressThe White House has been criticized for not doing more to promote TRIPS waiver in talks with Germany and EU.
The EU responded to criticisms from activists across the globe and health groups worldwide by emphasizing existing flexibilities in the WTO’s international patent rules such as compulsory licensing, which allows a country to issue licenses for making vaccines without permission from patent holders. However, health experts say the EU’s COVID proposals at the WTO do not go far enough, and a blanket waiver is needed for countries to move quickly in making generic vaccines and other supplies without facing legal and regulatory roadblocks in acquiring technology and know-how along the way.
Moderna, for one, has said it won’t prosecuteIntellectual property violations occurred during the pandemic. However, critics claim that the pledge to openly share the vaccine recipe with generic competitors is still inadequate. Moderna predicted that the number of people affected by the pandemic would rise to 200,000 in 2015. $18 billion in salesDoctors Without Borders estimates that the vaccine will be available in 2021. Moderna’s vaccine also benefited from a nearly $10 billion investment from the U.S. government and the company is currently haggling with government scientistsThere are many factors that influence who can take credit.
Opponents of this waiver claim intellectual property rules should be in place to protect research and development investments and streamline vaccine production. However, supporters argue that the vast majority of the world now agrees with the fact that patent monopolies are behind the disparities in vaccine accessibility that allow variants like Omicrons to emerge and spread.
“It’s like everybody against [a few] WTO members — EU, Switzerland, Norway and the U.K. — representing the interests of billionaires to become multibillionaires, and so that billionaires can become multibillionaires, millions of people are going to die,” James said in an interview.