In Brief: Rich countries block waiver on COVID-19 vaccine IP

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A shipment of COVID-19 vaccines. Photo by: Delta News Hub / CC BY

Rich countries continued to block a proposal from South Africa and India to waive intellectual property protections on COVID-19 drugs and vaccines during a new round of talks Thursday at the World Trade Organization.

Companies have been able to leverage global intellectual property and patent protections to essentially exercise monopolies over new COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. Activists argue that this is one of the primary reasons for the mounting imbalance in vaccine distribution.

At WTO, a battle for access to COVID-19 vaccines

A proposal introduced by South Africa and India seeks to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines and other technologies. Devex looks at why some high-income countries are trying to stop it from being passed.

South Africa and India introduced the waiver proposal in October calling for those protections to be suspended until herd immunity is achieved, drawing the support of more than 100 countries. But nations home to major pharmaceutical companies, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland, have repeatedly delayed it from advancing beyond a council that discusses trade-related restrictions. They argue that the exemptions would not actually help, since many countries lack the manufacturing capacity to produce the vaccines.

Why this matters: Supporters of the waiver said its adoption would be a crucial step in righting the imbalance in global vaccine distribution, allowing additional manufacturers to build or convert infrastructure, ramp up production, and increase global demand — particularly for the world’s lower-income countries.

What changed: Not much. Activists hoped that recent events might cause the European Union and the U.S. to rethink their earlier opposition. The EU has moved to put vaccine export controls in place out of concern over its own vaccine shortfalls — a situation that lower-income countries believed might make the bloc more sympathetic to their position.

And activists, encouraged by promises from new U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration to let no boundaries get in the way of American vaccine access, were hopeful he might bring the same attitude to international access. But while there are reports that the EU and the U.S. expressed more openness to discussions on the issue, both continue to obstruct the proposal.

About the author

  • Andrew Green

    Andrew Green is a Devex Contributing Reporter based in Berlin. His coverage focuses primarily on health and human rights and he has previously worked as Voice of America's South Sudan bureau chief and the Center for Public Integrity's web editor.