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Rich countries are refusing to waive the rights on Covid vaccines as global cases hit record levels


Medical workers converse among themselves at a quarantine center for Covid-19 coronavirus infected patients at a banquet hall that was converted into an isolation center to handle the rising cases of infection on April 15, 2021 in New Delhi, India.

Anindito Mukherjee | Getty Images News | Getty Images

LONDON — The U.S., Canada and U.K. are among some of the high-income countries actively blocking a patent-waiver proposal designed to boost the global production of Covid-19 vaccines.

It comes as coronavirus cases worldwide surge to their highest level so far and the World Health Organization has repeatedly admonished a “shocking imbalance” in the distribution of vaccines amid the pandemic.

Members of the World Trade Organization will meet virtually in Geneva, Switzerland on Thursday to hold informal talks on whether to temporarily waive intellectual property and patent rights on Covid vaccines and treatments.

The landmark proposal, which was jointly submitted by India and South Africa in October, has been backed by more than 100 mostly developing countries. It aims to facilitate the manufacture of treatments locally and boost the global vaccination campaign.

Six months on, the proposal continues to be stonewalled by a small number of governments — including the U.S., EU, U.K., Switzerland, Japan, Norway, Canada, Australia and Brazil.

“In this Covid-19 pandemic, we are once again faced with issues of scarcity, which can be addressed through diversification of manufacturing and supply capacity and ensuring the temporary waiver of relevant intellectual property,” Dr. Maria Guevara, international medical secretary at Medecins Sans Frontieres, said in a statement on Wednesday.

“It is about saving lives at the end, not protecting systems.”

The urgency and importance of waiving certain intellectual property rights amid the pandemic have been underscored by the WHO, health experts, civil society groups, trade unions, former world leaders, international medical charities, Nobel laureates and human rights organizations.

Why does it matter?

The waiver, if adopted at the General Council, the WTO’s highest-level decision-making body, could help countries around the world overcome legal barriers preventing them from producing their own Covid vaccines and treatments.

Advocates of the proposal have conceded the waiver is not a “silver bullet,” but argue that removing barriers toward the development, production and approval of vaccines is vital in the fight to prevent, treat and contain the coronavirus.

Conversely, pharmaceutical industry trade associations are against the waiver.

In a statement published late last year, Thomas Cueni, director-general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, argued that diluting national and international intellectual property frameworks would be “dangerous and counterproductive.”

Instead, he argued the focus should be on science and innovation rather than “undoing the very system that supports it.”

To date, an average of one-in-four people in high-income nations has received a Covid vaccine, compared to one-in-over-500 for people in low-income countries.

At the current rate, the bulk of the adult population in advanced economies is expected to have been vaccinated against the virus by the middle of next year, whereas the timeline for poorer economies is likely to stretch to 2024 — if it happens at all.

‘A scandal that affects us all’

The world leaders opposed to the policy are coming under intensifying pressure to change course.

In one possible shift in tone, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said last week that “significant inequities we are seeing in access to vaccines between developed and developing countries are completely unacceptable.”

Tai added that mistakes that had resulted in “unnecessary deaths and suffering” during the HIV/AIDS epidemic must not be repeated. However, the U.S. is yet to clarify whether it has changed its position on the waiver.

The European Commission has previously said waiving patents will not solve production capacity problems, reportedly claiming instead that policymakers need to find measures “to preserve the incentives to innovate.”

A spokesperson was not immediately available when contacted by CNBC on Thursday.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen.

Thierry Monasse | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Andrew Stroehlein, European media director of Human Rights Watch, said via Twitter on Thursday the fact that high-income countries were “throttling vaccine production globally by blocking the TRIPS waiver — a proposal at the WTO to temporarily waive some intellectual property rules for medical products — is a scandal that affects us all.”

His comments come shortly after The People’s Vaccine Alliance found that two-thirds of epidemiologists surveyed at some of the world’s leading academic institutions warned Covid mutations could render current vaccines ineffective in a year or less. The survey, published on March 30, interviewed 77 epidemiologists from 28 countries.

“It’s galling to hear pharma (companies) moan that a temporary waiver would ‘disincentivize’ them from making future vaccines. Apart from bordering on extortion, it’s ahistorical. What incentivized them last time was our taxes. Our governments poured billions into developing vaccines,” Stroehlein said.

“They could be thus incentivized again in future, obviously.”

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