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People attend a funeral of a coronavirus victim in Indonesia

Relatives offer prayers before the funeral of a woman who died at home during self-isolation after the local hospital was unable to accommodate further coronavirus patients in Jakarta, Indonesia on July 16, 2021. (Photo: Agung Fatma Putra/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

'A Death Sentence for So Many': Rich Nations Once Again Block Progress on Vaccine Patent Waiver

"The pandemic is a test and the world is failing," said the head of the World Health Organization.

Jake Johnson

An informal World Trade Organization meeting on Tuesday ended without any discernible progress toward a deal on a patent waiver for coronavirus vaccines as rich countries continue to stonewall the proposal, despite the accelerating spread of the ultra-contagious Delta variant and the likely emergence of other dangerous mutations.

"Countries' inaction isn't just frustrating bureaucracy. It's a death sentence for so many people. Support the TRIPS waiver. End the pandemic."
—The People's Vaccine Alliance

The next informal meeting of the WTO's TRIPS Council—the body tasked with overseeing the implementation of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights—is not until September, nearly a year after India and South Africa first introduced the patent waiver.

Despite having the support of more than 140 nations, the head of the World Health Organization, and hundreds of civil society organizations spanning the globe, the proposed waiver has been mired in fruitless negotiations for months as wealthy WTO members—most prominently Germany, the United Kingdom, and Canada—refuse to drop their opposition in the face of growing grassroots pressure.

The People's Vaccine Alliance, an international coalition of public health organizations campaigning for equitable vaccine distribution, warned following the WTO's meeting Tuesday that "countries' inaction isn't just frustrating bureaucracy."

"It's a death sentence for so many people," the coalition tweeted. "Support the TRIPS waiver. End the pandemic."

Proponents argue that, if approved, the patent waiver would help facilitate a rapid increase in coronavirus vaccine production, which has thus far failed to meet global needs—particularly in low-income countries, which have received just 1.1% of the 3.7 billion doses administered thus far.

The waiver calls for a temporary suspension of vaccine-related intellectual property rules that are barring manufacturers around the world from making generic vaccines, a restriction that has left a handful of powerful pharmaceutical corporations with a monopoly over production.

While pharmaceutical giants and rich nations have agreed to donate millions of doses to poor countries, such vaccine charity has done little to remedy the massive inequities in access, leaving vulnerable people across the globe unprotected from the now-dominant Delta variant and other future coronavirus strains.

Pfizer, which has sold most of its vaccine supply to rich countries, is seeking approval for booster shots in the U.S. as many people in poor nations remain without a single dose.

Heidi Chow, executive director of the U.K.-based Jubilee Debt Campaign, accused wealthy countries of engaging in "shameful delay tactics" at the WTO while the "death toll in the Global South continues to escalate and countries face the devastation of third waves and variants with little or no vaccines."

Priti Krishtel, co-executive director of the nonprofit organization I-MAK, highlighted a quote from South African diplomat Mustaqeem de Gama, who warned in March that "every minute we are deadlocked in the negotiating room, people are dying."

As a deal on a patent waiver remains out of reach, the highly transmissible Delta variant is wreaking havoc across the globe, tearing through Africa, South America, Southeast Asia, and other regions with low vaccination rates.

"Africa is now in the deadliest stage of its pandemic, and there is little prospect of relief in sight," the New York Times reported last week. "The Delta variant is sweeping across the continent. Namibia and Tunisia are reporting more deaths per capita than any other country. Hospitals across the continent are filling up, oxygen supplies and medical workers are stretched thin, and recorded deaths jumped 40% last week alone."

"Even a year from now," the Times continued, "supplies may not be enough to meet demand from Africa's 1.3 billion people unless richer countries share their stockpiles and rethink how the distribution system should work."

Speaking in Tokyo on Wednesday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the persistent inequities in vaccine distribution a "horrifying injustice" that is prolonging the global pandemic and endangering countless lives.

To date, the official coronavirus death toll is more than 4.1 million—but the actual figure is likely far higher, with one new study suggesting that the death toll in India alone could be well over 3 million.

"This is not just a moral outrage, it's also epidemiologically and economically self-defeating," Tedros said of unequal vaccine access. "The pandemic is a test and the world is failing."

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