The World Trade Organization was debating Thursday a proposal to exempt COVID-19 vaccines from intellectual property rights—an idea staunchly opposed by pharmaceutical giants.
The debate is being held at the request of India and South Africa, which want to boost the global production of vaccine doses to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
The plan aims to facilitate greater knowledge-sharing and the rapid scale-up of production sites for urgent COVID-19 medical goods, including vaccines.
It is supported by around 100 countries, according to the medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), and by the World Health Organization.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said a green light from their Geneva neighbours at the WTO would make the vaccines, tests and treatments used to fight COVID-19 “available to all who need them at an affordable cost”.
The plan would “scale up production in many, many developing countries which have the capacity”, Leena Menghaney, MSF’s South Asia medicines access campaign chief, told reporters.
Besides India and South Africa, she said there was production capacity in Bangladesh, Brazil, Thailand and several Latin American countries.
However, the decision rests with the WTO’s member states, which usually take decisions by consensus.
It is therefore hard to see the proposal being adopted, as there is far from unanimous support.
The plan seeks a waiver from certain rules in the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
It would grant an IP exemption until a majority of the world’s population has been immunised against COVID-19.
Though the plan has the backing of many developing countries, it is firmly opposed by states that host pharmaceutical giants.
IP rights encourage a “strong innovation business model” that has enabled development of COVID-19 tools, said Thomas Cueni, head of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations.
“We would have had no chance to move as quickly developing treatments or vaccines without the IP system,” he told an event this week.
Cueni stressed that those benefitting from IP waivers and transfers of such brand new technology would need years to build their production capacity from scratch.
“Even if the patents were waived, not a single more vaccine would reach the people during the pandemic,” he insisted.
Paul Stoffels, chief scientific officer at US pharma giant Johnson and Johnson, agreed.
“We focus on getting the technology stable ourselves and making sure we can supply next year, before starting transferring technology and capabilities to others,” he said.
After being officially put forward Thursday at the WTO’s TRIPS council, currently chaired by South Africa, it will also be debated on December 16 and 17 by the WTO’s General Council—the organisation’s supreme decision-making body.
During informal discussions on the subject held in recent weeks at the WTO, Japan, the United States and the European Union voiced their opposition, highlighting the vast financial commitments made by pharmaceutical groups.
Such countries also insist that those who developed the vaccines are best-placed to produce them safely in the quantities required, a Geneva trade official said.
The plan’s opponents also say the existing IP rules are already flexible enough, having provision for granting compulsory licences, specifically intended for emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic.
The current rules do indeed authorise the issuance of a so-called “compulsory” licence, allowing the authorities to give companies other than the patent holder the authorisation to manufacture a product, subject to certain conditions.
However, some countries think the procedure to get such licenses is too complicated, and the conditions too numerous.
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