The World Trade Organization (WTO) reached a deal on patents for Covid-19 vaccines early on Friday (17 June), after a deadlock of nearly two years — since India and South Africa submitted a joint proposal to waive intellectual property rights of vaccines worldwide.
The agreement, however, will continue to enforce patents and intellectual property rights of Covid-19 drugs, vaccines, diagnostics, and other technologies — a key demand from the EU, the UK, and Switzerland which have been major blockers of the waiver proposal.
The deal only waives one subclass of one article of the WTO Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement, removing a ban on exporting vaccines procured under a compulsory licence.
Governments can issue compulsory licences to domestic manufacturers to produce vaccines without the consent of the patent owner for a period of five years, but they must pay royalties to the patent holders.
All developing countries will be able to benefit from this decision, excluding those with existing capacities to produce vaccines such as China.
The explicit exclusion of China from the WTO vaccine waiver has been a key demand from the US.
Governments also agreed to avoid the re-exportation of vaccines from one developing country to another developing country — with exceptions for humanitarian and not-for-profit purposes.
However, it is unclear how this will impact access to the vaccine via Covax or Paho international sharing mechanisms.
WTO members will discuss whether to expand provisions to cover diagnosis and therapeutics no later than six months.
According to Dimitri Eynikel from Médecins Sans Frontières, “the impact of this decision would have been much bigger if therapeutics would have been included from the beginning” because that is where access challenges are happening right now.
“But it is very unlikely that within six months those who oppose that are going to suddenly accept the inclusion of these other products,” he said.
Campaigners slammed the deal reached at the 12th WTO ministerial meeting in Geneva, arguing that the text still protects pharma monopolies in rich countries and may have little effect in practice.
They also argued that some WTO members were given no time to review the final text that they agreed to, which could be against procedure rules.
“[This] is a technocratic fudge aimed at saving reputations, not lives,” said Max Lawson, campaigner at Oxfam, adding that the attitude of rich countries has been “utterly shameful”.
Rich countries have been criticised for failing to close the inequality gap regarding vaccine access, despite political commitments and words of solidarity.
“Vaccine[s] will be our universal, common good,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said in 2020.
“Immunisation is a global public good,” European Council president Charles Michel also said last year.
But massive vaccine inequality still persists.
Overall, only 18 percent of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine — compared to 80 percent in high-income countries.
The proposal to waive patents and intellectual property rights has been backed by 100 countries, the World Health Organization (WHO), over 300 civil society groups, plus Nobel laureates, former heads of state, MEPs, medical experts and trade unions.
Nearly 15 million people around the world have died during the first two years of the pandemic, according to the WHO.