‘Make-or-break moment’ as global leaders meet to discuss widening access to Covid vaccines

Proposals put to World Trade Organisation call for suspension of intellectual property rights on Covid-19 jabs and technologies

Samuel Lovett
Science Correspondent
Thursday 11 March 2021 09:45
Johnson 'corrects' European council president that UK is not blocking vaccine exports

The world is at a “make or break moment” in its fight against Covid-19, health campaigners have warned, as global leaders meet to discuss whether to temporarily suspend regulations that are constraining the expansion of vaccine production.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is staging a series of meetings to discuss proposals put forward by India and South Africa to waive intellectual property rights on Covid-19 jabs, which prevent the sharing of manufacturing technology between different pharmaceutical companies.

Many of the world’s vaccines are being produced by developed nations, which have already pre-ordered the vast majority of doses due to be delivered throughout 2021, leavingpoorer countries short on supplies.

The new proposals, which also call for the waiving of licensing rights surrounding treatments and other Covid-related technologies, could allow lower income countries to start manufacturing vaccines which have already been shown to work, and therefore guarantee access to life-saving doses rather than being reliant on handouts from the West.

However, the request to share vaccine technology and drop intellectual property rights – which are protected by trading laws – has repeatedly been blocked by richer countries throughout the pandemic, including the UK, US and European Union. A consensus among WTO members is typically needed to pass this resolution.

As the WTO once again meets to discuss the proposals, campaigners and charities have called on these “morally repellent” governments to drop their opposition, which many fear could prolong the acute phase of the pandemic within the world’s poorest countries.

Global Justice Now, a campaign group on issues of trade, health care and justice, said that factories across the world are “lying idle” because of a patent system which is preventing them from offering assistance.

“This meeting is a make-or-break moment in the international fight against coronavirus,” director Nick Dearden told The Independent. “Will governments of wealthy countries like Britain and the USA continue to fuel a vaccine apartheid which treats the rights of most people on the planet as secondary to corporate profits? 

“Or will they back South Africa and India and agree that patents should be waived and technology shared, allowing a massive expansion of manufacturing across the world?”

Research commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that the equitable distribution of the Covid-19 vaccines globally could prevent 61 per cent of future deaths, compared to 33 per cent if doses are monopolised by 47 of the world’s richest nations.

Yet more than 75 per cent of global vaccinations to date have been administered in just 10 countries, analysis showed, while some 130 nations – with a combined population of 2.5 billion people – have not rolled out a single jab.

The world’s richest countries have bought one billion more doses than their citizens need, according to estimates. Britain itself has amassed one of the largest vaccine stockpiles in the world, having ordered more than 400 million shots – enough to inoculate its entire population three times over.

“Remember these wealthy government have already bought the vast bulk of vaccine available this year,” Mr Dearden added. “The very least they can do now is to allow other countries to produce these life-saving medicines themselves. 

“To keep blocking the reasonable and well-argued case put forward by governments in Africa, Asia and Latin America is both morally repellent and will severely delay our ability to beat this virus.”

Ahead of this week’s discussions, a coalition of more than 45 business leaders, academics and trade unionists wrote to prime minister Boris Johnson urging him to drop the UK’s opposition to the proposals, which were first submitted to the WTO in October.

The letter, whose signatories include Anthony Costello, professor of global health at University College London, and Clare Wenham, assistant professor of global health policy at LSE, said the world was “facing a catastrophe around vaccine access”. 

The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations has meanwhile said that the proposals would undermine confidence in “what has proven to be a well-functioning IP system allowing industry to partner with confidence” with academic and research institutes.

Amid mounting pressure and criticism, a number of countries in the west have adopted a softer stance on the proposals, the The Independent understands, including Germany and Norway.

In communication circulated within the WTO on 9 March, representatives from Australia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, New Zealand, Norway and Turkey urged officials “to ensure that any unused or underutilized capacity for the production of … vaccines, at any stage in the process, is promptly identified and used as fully as it is technically possible”.

Roz Scourse, a policy adviser at Médecins Sans Frontières, which organised the letter sent to the PM, said the ongoing WTO talks represented a “critical moment”.

“We can’t go on discussing it forever. It’s critical they reach an agreement so countries and manufacturers in the global south can scale up production of these life saving products and ensure access,” she told The Independent.

“Those countries who are blocking the proposals are hypocritical. Preventing poorer countries from having the best opportunity to respond to the crisis is really unforgivable.”

Ellen ‘t Hoen, an expert in medicines policy and researcher at the University Medical Centre Groningen, told The Independent that a “more collaborative model” that would allow different governments, industry bodies and pharmaceutical firms to come together in increasing vaccine production capacity.

A government spokesperson said the UK was not blocking the proposals submitted to the WTO and had provided £548m to help supply at least 1.3 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses for up to 92 developing countries this year.

“Equitable access is an integral part of the UK’s approach to vaccine development and distribution. Whilst we are committed to exploring ways in which we can improve equitable access further, we believe that the answer lies within the existing Intellectual Property framework, and continue to engage constructively in discussions at the WTO,” they said.

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