The oft-repeated slogan of the SARS-COV-2 pandemic that no one is safe until we are all safe has no resonance at the World Trade Organization (WTO) where the profits of large pharmaceutical companies take precedence over the safety and health of billions of people. The death toll resulting from the pandemic is over 3 million people. It will rise much more as the coronavirus continues to mutate while rich countries and their corporate backers impede the vaccine rollout.
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Director General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, recently said “confusion, complacency and inconsistency in public health measures” were prolonging the pandemic and it might be months before the global situation was brought under control, and only then with concerted measures.
The WHO DG brought his authority and knowledge to the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting on April 14 to support the proposal sponsored by South Africa and India for a temporary TRIPS waiver in world trade.
The waiver would empower countries to adjust their domestic policies and practices to most effectively battle COVID-19 by suspending some exclusivities otherwise required by the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) with respect to patents, copyrights, industrial designs and undisclosed information insofar as they hinder the production of health products and technologies for prevention, treatment and control of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Tedros informed the WTO meeting that “more than 800 million vaccine doses have been administered globally, but over 83% have gone to high-income or upper middle-income countries, while low-income countries have received just 0.2%.”
He suggested that “the current company-controlled production sharing agreements are not coming close to meeting the overwhelming public health and socio-economic needs for effective, affordable and equitable access to vaccines, as well as therapeutics and other critical health technologies.”
Two-thirds of WTO member nations, including many nations that to date have had no access to vaccines, support the waiver. Pharmaceutical corporations, who were able to develop the vaccines with USD billions in public funding, fiercely oppose the waiver and insist on maintaining their monopoly control over how much and where COVID medications can be produced, how they are priced and to whom they are sold. They have influenced wealthy countries to maintain their control in a ‘third way’ proposal at the WTO.
Prominent backers of the ‘third way’ approach include the EU, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, New Zealand, UK and Norway. At the April 14 meeting the US representative also failed to support the TRIPS waiver despite the overwhelming global call to do so.
Over 200 civil society organizations issued a powerful message to the WTO Director General, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on April 13, challenging the third way approach she supports that emphasizes pharmaceutical industry-controlled bilateral agreements as the primary approach to address global production constraints and supply shortages. On the same day, a letter signed by 175 former world leaders and Nobel laureates urged US President Biden to support the WTO waiver as “a vital and necessary step to bringing an end to this pandemic.”
There is no time to waste. International institutions must facilitate the equitable distribution of affordable, safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. The TRIPS waiver at the WTO is a vital first step. The countries preventing the waiver must reverse course to save millions of lives, hasten the end of the pandemic, and give some hope to the possibility of reform at the WTO towards a world trading system anchored by the principles of global justice and recognition of human rights.