Experts write to PM against WTO proposal on COVID-19 vaccine waivers

“The current version of the text added new burdensome conditions that would impose additional limits on countries using non-voluntary licensing”

Updated - April 08, 2022 07:54 am IST

Published - April 08, 2022 02:53 am IST - NEW DELHI

Six experts from India, South Africa and the United States have written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to reject the current version of a proposal at the World Trade Organisation on intellectual property waivers for COVID-19 medicines, that includes vaccines, drugs and diagnostics.

In October 2020, at the WTO’s Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Council, India and South Africa proposed that the WTO do away with certain provisions of the TRIPS Agreement for the duration of the pandemic to facilitate access to technologies necessary for the production of vaccines and medicines. Such a waiver would aid scaling up of local production, critical to ensure wider access to affordable and effective vaccines. Most of these patents are held by pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. and the European Union.

The waiver proposal was blocked at the TRIPS Council and the WTO ministerial Council, though there have been several rounds of discussions involving ministers of several WTO member-countries. In the last year, though 100 countries, including the U.S., supported the proposal, the EU remained a stumbling block. Last month, however, a leaked document that suggested a compromise between the EU, U.S., India and South started doing the rounds. This said that all patent rights that protect the manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines will be waived for three to five years, but did not include such waivers for diagnostics and drugs.

India-based trade and public health organisations have criticised the draft though there is little opprobrium from Indian pharma companies.

“A consensus has emerged that the text will not provide the freedom to operate Global South manufacturers require. It also adds burdensome new limits relative to the WTO status quo. There must be no ambiguity going forward: The WTO must not tie the hands of countries like South Africa and India that are striving to ensure that all are protected against the ravages of COVID-19. Any ambiguity will stifle production and dissemination of the drugs and products needed to protect the public,” says the letter signed by Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, Anglican Church of Southern Africa; Professor Mariana Mazzucato, Founding Director of the UCL Institute for Innovation & Public Purpose; Rohinton P. Medhora, President, Centre for International Governance Innovation; Srinath Reddy, President, Public Health Foundation of India, Joseph E. Stiglitz, Columbia University, New York; and Imraan Valodia, Pro-Vice Chancellor, Climate, Sustainability and Inequality, University of the Witwatersrand,Johannesburg.

Along with raising the point on the limited scope of the waiver, the signatories added that the current version of the text added “new burdensome conditions” that would impose additional limits on countries using non-voluntary licensing. It also continues to require product-by-product authorisation, thwarting a simplified pathway for follow-on manufacturers to produce and enter the market and does not waive other forms of IP barriers that thwart COVID vaccine production, such as protecting undisclosed information, or trade secrets, necessary to make vaccines.

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