Friday was an important day in the world’s fight against Covid-19. The day saw an informal meeting of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Council to discuss a proposal made by India and South Africa in October, and which has since been supported by around 100 other countries. The proposal, also supported by many leading non-governmental organisations working in the area of public health, calls for a waiver of intellectual property rights on several products related to protection from and treatment of Covid-19 – from masks to vaccines – till the worst of the pandemic passes.
But the move isn’t supported by many first-world nations including the US, the UK, Japan, and many countries from the European Union. The discussion comes amidst a scramble by countries to secure vaccines for their population – through pre-approval deals with companies developing vaccines. Announcements by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna on the efficacy of their vaccines – both came in the past fortnight – have only served to intensify the scramble. Nature reported back in August that rich nations have signed deals to buy at least two billion doses of vaccines. According to that article, based on data from health care analytics firm Airfinity, the UK has struck deals to cover its populations five times over. And that was three months ago.
Over the past month, countries have finalised their positions on the India-South Africa proposal – reiterated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a meeting of the Brics grouping earlier this week – based on internal discussions. But Friday’s meeting, details of which were awaited when this column was being written, is unlikely to be the last word on it, although it is important from the perspective of understanding the support for the proposal. The lines are clearly drawn. The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial titled “A Global Covid Vaccine Heist” accused India and South Africa of wanting to “obtain this [vaccine] technology without paying for it and then use their generic-drug manufacturing base to produce, distribute and sell copycats worldwide”. “This is theft, not sharing,” it wrote. Yet, keeping these vaccines out of reach from the global south – most vaccine capacity for next year has been booked by the global north – will only deepen existing divides. Still worse, vaccinating only part of the world is unlikely to solve the problem, unless countries with access to the vaccine create bubbles around themselves, placing significant restrictions on movement of goods and people across their borders.
Interestingly, this isn’t the first time such a request is being moved at WTO. In 2001, following long-drawn and sometimes bitter discussions surrounding treatment for HIV/AIDS, WTO’s Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health established that countries had the right to disregard patents and other intellectual property rights in case of national health emergencies. Some believe that the resulting wave of generics helped many countries get HIV/AIDS under control. In 2003, an amendment was made to allow inexpensive generics to be exported to countries that did not have capacity to manufacture the medicines. The main flexibility allowed by the 2001 declaration was compulsory licensing, which entails the patent-holders being compensated adequately.
But what of companies that have spent billions on research? Will they be happy with such compensation? And will it be fair to them?
There are no easy answers. But the debate, and the divide it is threatening to exacerbate, point to why it would have been better for everyone – rich, developing and poor countries, and vaccine developers – if WHO’s Covax facility had managed to sign on more rich countries, and also struck deals with vaccine developers. In the absence of a mechanism such as this, it was always going to get messy.