The development of several COVID-19 vaccines has brought the promise of defeating a global pandemic that’s already claimed millions of lives but inequality in access to these medicines is threatening to create a severely unequal recovery. Accountability Lab is proud to be among the signatories of the C20-L20 TRIPS statement supporting a waiver to increase supplies of vaccines throughout the world.
On 30 January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) the sixth public health emergency of international concern. Now, more than a year into the global pandemic, signs of a light at the end of the tunnel have emerged as several pharmaceutical companies have started rolling out vaccines.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the stark inequalities that exist around the world in terms of access to healthcare,” says Blair Glencorse, Accountability Lab’s Executive Director. “Collectively we are still failing to rise to the challenge of COVID-19, as national priorities and political agendas are undermining shared progress.”
This is why Accountability Lab is proud to be among the signatories of the C20-L20 TRIPS statement supporting the waiver of rules outlined in the World Trade Organization (WTO) Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) agreement to potentially increase supplies of vaccines throughout the world.
“Wealthy countries have to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines are shared equitably because COVID-19 is a global challenge and the longer developing countries do not have access to vaccines, the more likely it is that variants of COVID-19 will emerge that will make those same vaccines less effective,” added Glencorse.
The various vaccines are all intended to provide acquired immunity against severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS‑CoV‑2), the virus causing COVID‑19. However, distribution of the life-saving vaccines that could put an end to this once in a lifetime global crisis is facing the all too familiar challenge of inequality between the rich and the poor.
A report published by ONE Campaign revealed that a handful of countries in the western world have secured more than a billion more doses of COVID-19 vaccines than they need, leaving the rest of the world scrambling for leftover supplies. In an analysis of current supply deals for COVID-19 vaccines, the ONE Campaign looked specifically at contracts with the five leading COVID-19 vaccine makers.
The five pharmaceutical companies were Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Oxford-AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax. ONE found that the US, the EU, Britain, Australia, Canada and Japan have already secured more than 3 billion doses - over a billion more than the 2.06 billion needed to give their entire populations two doses. Inequality in access to COVID-19 vaccines will only prolong the impact of the pandemic across the world and further entrench existing divides between the powerful and vulnerable.
“World’s governments are dealing with an unprecedented economic and social crisis and their critical resources should not be now spent on sustaining the cumbersome legal intricacies of intellectual property disputes on COVID-19 technologies with patent holders,” reads the C20-L20 TRIPS statement.
“This means that G20 countries need to support the proposal put forward by India and South Africa at the WTO to waive intellectual property rights related to COVID-19 goods and facilitate dissemination of existing medical knowledge. Supporting the TRIPS waiver means translating into actions the announced commitments aimed at making all COVID-19 vaccines and treatments ‘global public goods’.”
The statement also highlights the need to avoid repeating the mistakes of the HIV/AIDS crisis, which resulted in 7.6 million preventable deaths in Sub-Saharan Africa alone. This was in large part due to high prices and restrictive IP rules and continues to limit the response to HIV in the countries that need it most.
The steps taken by the governments of Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe during that period were a crucial example of the kind of action needed to prevent further calamity when talks with drugmakers had failed. These nations issued compulsory licences for HIV/AIDS drugs, followed by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil, allowing them to waive IP rights without the licence owners’ consent.
The WTO proposal by India and South Africa - first tabled in October 2020 - has been put forward in the hope that a waiver push on COVID-19 vaccine medical patents can reap similar rewards and stop a global pandemic that has already claimed nearly 3 million lives dead in its tracks.
Support for the proposal has gained momentum with 57 countries, mostly in Africa, now counted as co-sponsors; 31 U.S. lawmakers also back the proposal, along with 115 of members of the European parliament. The WTO also gained a new director-general in February, Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who has warned that vaccine protectionism must be overcome to solve the pandemic. She said in a speech on March 9 that the TRIPS Council discussions were vitally important, but “the fact is that each additional day the vaccine shortage continues, people will pay with their lives”.
Dishearteningly, the waiver has been opposed by many lawmakers in the US, the EU, Japan, Switzerland and the UK, who argue that intellectual property barriers aren’t as big an obstacle to vaccine access as manufacturing capacity. Nonetheless, global support for the proposal is growing. Dozens of nations have expressed support, as has Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Additionally, more than 250 research and education organizations and individuals from around the world have called on the WTO to temporarily waive IP protection for vaccines and treatments related to the pandemic, highlighting the copyright barriers preventing access to knowledge that could lead to new COVID-19 treatments.
The WTO’s TRIPS Council, established to monitor and resolve IP issues, will meet again on June 8-9 2021. The waiver will need a consensus from the organization’s 164 members to pass.
In a crisis such as this it is essential that intellectual property rights are waived for vaccines to ensure a strong, just global recovery from the pandemic. As the C20 has pointed out, we have the moral and political obligation to put an end to this pandemic as soon as possible.
Kibo Ngowi is a Marketing & Communications Coordinator for Accountability Lab, a global translocal network that makes governance work for people by supporting active citizens, responsible leaders and accountable institutions.