Winnie Byanyima asks World Bank to 'align with us' and support the TRIPS waiver

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Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS. Photo by: Boris Baldinger / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima has asked the World Bank to support the TRIPS waiver at the World Trade Organization to boost supplies of COVID-19 vaccines.

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“We really would like to see the bank supporting the waiver. WHO supports it. We support it,” she said during a civil society event at the 2021 World Bank Springs Meetings last week, arguing that the waiver could help get more companies to produce and boost COVID-19 vaccine supply.

“The bank needs to align with us and support the waiver,” she added.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has faced several issues from efficacy to safety questions in recent months. Still, it is currently “the best model” among the COVID-19 vaccines in use today, she said. The manufacturer has partnered with several vaccine manufacturers globally, helping increase production for its COVID-19 vaccines and allowing it to provide its vaccine to COVAX, the global COVID-19 vaccine procurement initiative, through voluntary licensing arrangements.

But while “voluntary licensing is good,” Byanyima said, “it's not enough.”

“It isn't enough because … we cannot depend on the goodness of companies to license other companies to produce more. We can't leave it to business to provide enough supply for the whole world,” she explained.

There has been a fierce debate over how to boost vaccine production globally, as many low- and middle-income countries still struggle to access COVID-19 vaccines.

The proposal initially submitted by South Africa and India to WTO to suspend intellectual property protections on COVID-19 technologies during the pandemic has received wide backing from many low- and middle-income countries, but it has faced pushback from a number of high-income countries.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, WTO’s new director-general, has proposed a third-way that includes voluntary licensing for COVID-19 products, but some public health advocates found the proposal disappointing.

Byanyima, who has been a vocal proponent for a people’s vaccine, said governments should require companies to share vaccine technology, given the amount of taxpayer money that has gone to developing these vaccines. They can do this via the World Health Organization-led COVID-19 Technology Access Pool, or C-TAP, where companies can still get paid under certain arrangements. C-TAP has to date struggled to gain traction.

But calls to waive patents at WTO are also important, and the UNAIDS chief has called on the World Bank to support it. But the bank’s senior health official said he needs to check on the bank’s official position.

“I will look into the bank’s position on the TRIPS waiver … I have my position, but I would like to look into the bank's position and then communicate on that,” said Muhammad Pate, global director for health, nutrition, and population at the World Bank, at the same event.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.