In a context of the current scramble for privileged access to the up-coming COVID-19 vaccines, the proposal for a waiver of international intellectual property rules on medical products for the prevention, containment or treatment of COVID-19 can be a game changer.
In early October 2020, two southern countries proposed that the World Trade Organisation waive off the international trade rules that create barrier to accessing vaccines, medicines and other medical products.
The international trade union movement, including IndustriALL Global Union, Public Services International (PSI) and International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), endorsed a statement supporting the waiver.
Unions can play an important role by letting governments know that the labour movement understands the importance of this proposal and by demanding that they support the adoption of the waiver.
Read the Letter Supporting the TRIPS Waiver
Sign the Letter Supporting the TRIPS Waiver
Why is this proposal important?
An effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic requires equitable and rapid access to affordable medical products, such as diagnostic kits, medical masks and other personal protective equipment, ventilators, as well as vaccines and medicines for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19.
The onset of the outbreak led to a swift increase in global demand for key medical products, with many countries facing acute shortages of diagnostic kits, ventilators, medical masks and other personal protective equipment. Scaling up of local manufacturing capacity in multiple countries is an obvious and crucial solution to ensure the timely availability and affordability of medical products. The same approach also applies to vaccines and medicines.
Obligations under the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement, which mandates the protection of intellectual property (IP), poses several barriers to local production of medical products and thus compromises their availability at affordable cost.
Through IP protection, such as copyrights, patents, and industrial designs, MNCs can prevent other manufacturers to produce the same products. This monopoly over the market allows a few MNCs to keep prices artificially high. It is competition from generic manufacturers from developing countries, such as India, that brought the cost of HIV medicines from more than USD 12,000 for a year treatment in 2000 to USD75 a year in 2018.
But not all the countries have the local capability to produce medicines and vaccines. Patents give big pharma not only the exclusive rights to prevent other companies from making and selling, but also importing products that are patented.
In addition, TRIPS includes provisions that make it necessary for generic companies to repeat clinical trials in order to be given the approval to put their products on the market, which is costly and unethical.
Though the TRIPS Agreement provides certain “flexibilities” (i.e. policy safeguards) to protect public health, but these flexibilities are difficult to use and often time consuming.
The retribution for infringing IP rights under TRIPS are so stringent that potential manufacturers and even governments are afraid to take actions that might later be interpreted as breaching the rights of big pharma and other IP rights holders.
TRIPS provides for 50 years of copyright protection, 20 years of patent protection, 10 years of protection for industrial designs. We can not afford to wait that long, we require the medical products to prevent and treat COVID 19 now.
In this context, the waiver proposal aims to ensure that “intellectual property rights such as patents, industrial designs, copyright and protection of undisclosed information do not create barriers to the timely access to affordable medical products including vaccines and medicines and to scaling-up of research, development, manufacturing and supply of medical products essential to combat COVID-19”. The solution proposed is to suspend such IP protection and its enforcement with regard to medical products required for the COVID 19 response.
The waiver is also important is it would ensure that the research for Covid that has been funded by the public sector is not miss-appropriated by the private sector for profit and can instead be realised as a public good.
The Waiver proposal was considered by the WTO body that oversees intellectual property related rules, the Council for TRIPS (TRIPS Council) on 15 October. Within 90 days the TRIPS Council has to submit a report to the to the General Council of the WTO, the highest-level decision-making body of the organisation. The formal and final decision on the waiver is to be taken by the General Council.
In order to avoid government actions on IP rights, pharma MNCs have pledged to make COVID-19 products affordable and accessible voluntarily, including through what are called voluntary licenses. Under these voluntary licenses, MNCs decide and control the price, quantity and geographical destination of their products, allowing them to remain in control of the market and of their profit margins. More dangerously, by cherry picking the countries that will have priority access to medical products, they compromise the unhindered global sharing of technology and know-how opportunity for global solidarity and collaboration. Voluntary licenses can not be a replacement to the TRIPS waiver.
Unions have joined civil society allies in calling for all countries to support the waiver and signed the CSO Letter Supporting the TRIPS Waiver. Around the world, and especially in Low and Middle Income Countries, governments will be under pressure to turn their back on this proposal. Let your government know that you support the TRIPS Waiver, and that unions understand the importance of this proposal and want them to fully support it.
Sign the CSO Letter Supporting the TRIPS Waiver here.