Currently a historic World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting is taking place in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss the waiving of patents on COVID-19 vaccines. Speaking at the opening of the first WTO summit in five years, Director-General (DG) Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala expressed “cautious optimism” about the outcomes, as reported in The Japan Times.
Since her election in 2021, WTO DG Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has been vocal about the need to boost coronavirus vaccine accessibility in developing countries. The DG welcomed the original Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) flexibility proposal from South Africa and India, stressing the urgency of striking a deal.
It looks like the willingness to pass some type of deal on patent waving is prevailing over common sense
Now, we might be hours away from an agreement that will affect our chances to improve the world through innovation forever. The EU’s original opposition to the deal was undermined, when in November 2021 the European Parliament voted in favour of granting the TRIPS waiver. US President Biden eventually followed giving the waiver a green light.
It looks like the willingness to pass some sort of deal on patent waving is prevailing over common sense. Dismantling Intellectual Property (IP) rights will not tackle vaccine hesitancy in the developing world but instead only disrupt innovation globally.
TRIPS waiver would allow governments to override global IP rules in the case of emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. In practice, this would mean waiving patents to produce coronavirus vaccines, protective equipment, and medical devices, so letting companies produce vaccines without the agreement of the patent owner.
By supporting the TRIPS waiver, Western governments demonstrate yet again how short-term their memory is. Hesitancy over COVID-19 vaccines has been booming in Europe and the US. In Austria, for example, only 46.2% of people trusted the government to provide safe vaccines a recent study found. Safety concerns combined with low trust in government, and demonisation of the pharma industry underlie vaccine hesitancy.
All of the said issues are significant in and of themselves. But it is particularly striking that TRIPS advocates in the West disregard them in the context of vaccine distribution in developing countries. A 2021 survey in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, found that roughly half of people were hesitant to take COVID-19 vaccines. In Africa, despite the supply of vaccines, the hesitancy also remains high, according to Professor Yap Boum, representative of Epicentre, the research arm of Doctors Without Borders.
The TRIPS waiver would simply remove every incentive for innovators to solve the world’s most pressing problems
Advocates of TRIPS waiver fail to explain the vaccine hesitancy aspect of low vaccine uptake in developing countries. If people in developing countries do not want to take vaccines, produced by pharmaceutical companies, with a good safety track record, what makes TRIPS proponents think they would take vaccines produced by third-party suppliers?
Without patents, third-party suppliers will make vaccine shots based on patented formulas and processes. As a result, the risk of producing bad, inactive vaccines that will undermine vaccination in general is extremely high. It could throw the global vaccination efforts under the bus.
If passed, the TRIPS waiver deal will slowly but surely destroy the future of innovation. Intellectual property rights to ensure that companies can continue to innovate and deliver on their products to consumers. Pharmaceutical research takes a staggering amount of time, effort and investment so it is natural that they expect some repayments. The TRIPS waiver would simply remove every incentive for innovators to solve the world’s most pressing problems. And we have quite a few!
As societies, we made unparalleled progress in the pharmaceutical field. We’re on the brink of fighting rectal cancer, and it won’t take too long before anti-ageing drugs become widely available. But if TRIPS advocates succeed, these and many other opportunities will be lost forever. Trading the future of the planet and next generations for a few million unsafe vaccines, which people in developing countries might refuse to take, doesn’t seem like a fair calculus.
This article reflects the views of the author and not the views of The Parliament Magazine or of the Dods Group