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A health worker administers a dose of the Covid-19 vaccine on June 9, 2021 in New Delhi, India. (Photo: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

A health worker administers a dose of the Covid-19 vaccine on June 9, 2021 in New Delhi, India. (Photo: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

'Shame It's Taken So Long': Health Advocates Welcome Formal WTO Talks to Suspend Covid Vaccine Patents

"Countless numbers of people have needlessly died while waiting for a breakthrough in these discussions," said one campaigner. "Governments must now clear away these artificial barriers to vaccine production and end this deadly pandemic."

Kenny Stancil

Global justice campaigners fighting for universal access to Covid-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines reacted with a mix of elation and frustration to Wednesday's announcement that members of the World Trade Organization will begin formal text-based negotiations on a temporary waiver of Big Pharma's coronavirus-related patents next week—more than eight months after India and South Africa first introduced a proposal to suspend intellectual property barriers for the duration of the pandemic.

"It is shameful that in the midst of a pandemic it has taken eight long painful months and 2.7 million deaths from Covid-19 for a handful of rich country government blockers to finally agree to enter formal text-based negotiations on this life-saving proposal."
—Anna Marriott, Oxfam

"This move to text-based negotiations is good news, because it means all member states acknowledge that pharmaceutical monopolies are blocking access to life-saving vaccines for millions of people and that this needs to be addressed," Anna Marriott, Oxfam's Health Policy Manager, said in a statement.

"However," she added, "it is shameful that in the midst of a pandemic it has taken eight long painful months and 2.7 million deaths from Covid-19 for a handful of rich country government blockers to finally agree to enter formal text-based negotiations on this life-saving proposal."

Heidi Chow, senior policy and campaigns manager at Global Justice Now, echoed Marriott's message: "After eight months of stalling and delaying by a handful of rich countries, world leaders have finally given the green light for negotiations to start."

"The global intellectual property (IP) system is not fit for purpose," said Chow. "Countless numbers of people have needlessly died while waiting for a breakthrough in these discussions. Governments must now clear away these artificial barriers to vaccine production and end this deadly pandemic."

Although France on Wednesday joined the more than 100 countries that support removing IP barriers to boost the worldwide manufacturing of life-saving vaccines, several other members of the European Union, as well as the United Kingdom and a few additional countries, have not yet endorsed the motion to temporarily waive the WTO's Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement.

Nevertheless, Doctors Without Borders still described the start of negotiations on the text of the TRIPS waiver as an important development.

"This is a major breakthrough," said Leena Menghaney, global IP advisor for the organization's Access Campaign. "After eight months of stalling, Doctors Without Borders welcomes the start of the negotiations."

"Governments must do everything in their power to make sure that the TRIPS waiver is not restricted to vaccines and has the best chance to save as many lives as possible throughout this pandemic," Menghaney added. "In addition to vaccines, the world urgently needs access to newer therapeutics and other health technologies to reduce the number of hospitalizations and deaths."

While Covid-19 has officially claimed the lives of over 3.7 million people worldwide so far—including 2.7 million since the TRIPS waiver was first proposed last October—the World Health Organization recently estimated that the pandemic's true death toll could be between six to eight million people.

Currently, of the more than 2.22 billion shots that have been administered worldwide, just 0.3% have gone into the arms of people living in low-income countries, with people in high- and middle-income countries receiving 85% of the doses, according to the New York Times. The vaccination rates in North America (64%) and Europe (53%) are far higher than in South America (32%), Asia (27%), Oceania (15%), and Africa (2.9%).

This manifestation of global inequality, which critics have called "vaccine apartheid," has intensified the spread of Covid-19, particularly in South Asia, Latin America, and Africa

A recent analysis by a coalition of humanitarian groups estimated that at the current vaccination rate, it would take low-income countries 57 years to fully vaccinate their populations against Covid-19.

"Without enough vaccines, developing countries continue to lose lives and jobs," said Eric LeCompte of Jubilee USA Network, whose advocacy work includes pushing for equitable medicine access in trade agreements. "We must move as fast as possible so all people can receive coronavirus vaccines, therapies, and medical equipment to respond to the crisis."

LeCompte added that "unless we act quickly on global vaccine access, most of the world's countries will see lost decades of development. As the crisis worsens in developing countries, wealthy countries will face more economic shocks."

As epidemiologists and advocates for a "people's vaccine" have stressed since the beginning of the pandemic, the more chances the virus has to mutate, the more the lives and livelihoods of millions of people around the world are endangered.

"This is not just an issue of basic morality, but of public health," Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said earlier this year. "The virus does not respect borders. Until all of us are safe from this virus, no one is."


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