'Appalling': Deal on IP Waiver Reportedly Limited to Covid Vaccines

A coalition of healthcare advocacy organizations gathered outside Pfizer's worldwide headquarters in Manhattan on March 11, 2020. (Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

'Appalling': Deal on IP Waiver Reportedly Limited to Covid Vaccines

Justice campaigners are urging World Trade Organization members to reach an agreement that also boosts access to tests and treatments.

While welcoming a possible "major breakthrough" in talks to temporarily waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines, global justice campaigners on Tuesday also expressed frustration with reporting that the deal does not extend to tests and treatments for the deadly virus.

"The progress made has only come because developing country governments stood firm and because so many ordinary people campaigned."

"This is big news," tweeted Alex Betsos, co-host of the Drug Futurisms Podcast, pointing to Politico's exclusive report on the development. "Less than ideal, but still could be invaluable to getting closer to vaccine equity."

Ashleigh Furlong's article on the pending agreement is behind a paywall but the Politico healthcare journalist detailed the key takeaways in a series of tweets.

The potential deal at the World Trade Organization (WTO) comes after India and South Africa first proposed a waiver in October 2020. Since then, member states have been locked in debates about waiving parts of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement during the pandemic, with rich nations and Big Pharma opposing action that public health experts and advocates argue is necessary to stem what they call "vaccine apartheid."

The waiver "would cover Covid-19 vaccines and after six months this would be reconsidered to potentially cover tests and therapeutics," according to Furlong. It would be limited to developing countries "that exported less than 10% of world exports of Covid-19 vaccine doses in 2021."

James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, told Furlong that it is "appalling" that the waiver would be limited to vaccines.

Love--who advises United Nations agencies, governments, and public health NGOs--pointed out that countries can allow the nonvoluntary use of patents "even without prior negotiation with patent owners in cases of emergency or a pandemic."

The expert also criticized that the deal would protect "American and European vaccine manufacturers from competition from developing country suppliers."

Responding to Furlong's report on Twitter, Nick Dearden, director of the U.K.-based group Global Justice Now, said that while the "important" deal is "much less than we demanded," it is also "politically very significant."

"It doesn't include treatments (yet), it's ludicrously late, it excludes countries (though if India isn't excluded that's significant!)," Dearden noted. "Priority for now--we cannot wait six months to decide on treatments, they should be included now."

"On the positive side, we could be close to a global agreement that IP rules on lifesaving medicines should not be sacrosanct in a pandemic," he added. "Big Pharma will not be at all happy. Especially because it makes it harder to justify these rules at any time."

Noting the exclusion of therapeutics and tests, Joshua McEvoy, a Ph.D. candidate at Queen's University in Canada, said the agreement "is better than nothing but nothing should NOT be the benchmark."

"How many died or now live with long Covid because countries, including Canada, chose to protect profits instead?" McEvoy asked.

"The greed and sloth are just staggering. How many people needlessly died as a result?"

Lee Jones, a professor of political economy and international relations at Queen Mary, University of London, declared that it is "staggering that it has taken this long for the major capitalist states to agree [to] a waiver on intellectual property to enable Covid-19 vaccine distribution."

"The greed and sloth are just staggering," he added. "How many people needlessly died as a result?"

Shailly Gupta, communications adviser for the Access Campaign at Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF)--or Doctors Without Borders--also highlighted that the deal only applies to vaccines.

"Not good at all," said Gupta. "What about therapeutics that are or will be needed for those who will continue to fall sick due to Covid-19 in low- and middle-income countries?"

Max Lawson, co-chair of the People's Vaccine Alliance, said in a statement that "after almost 18 months of stalling and millions of deaths, the E.U. has climbed down and finally admitted that intellectual property rules and pharmaceutical monopolies are a barrier to vaccinating the world."

"This is a tribute to millions of campaigners across the world who have demanded a People's Vaccine, but this leaked proposal is not the comprehensive TRIPS waiver demanded by over 100 governments," he noted. "Unless it is significantly improved it will not do enough to bring an end to vaccine apartheid and ensure access for all."

Lawson continued:

As it stands, this proposal seems to do little to address patents beyond the existing flexibilities in the TRIPS Agreement. It ignores other intellectual property barriers like trade secrets that stand in the way of vaccine manufacturers. And by focusing only on vaccines and kicking the issue of Covid-19 treatments into the long grass, it will leave lifesaving treatments out of reach for millions.

In a crisis, half-measures are not acceptable. Every barrier to accessing these crucial vaccines and treatments must be cleared away. We urge member states to return to the negotiating table and come back with a comprehensive waiver that will work to cut short this pandemic and guarantee everyone is protected.

News of the agreement comes as some regions around the world are battling rising cases as they ease restrictions.

This post has been updated with comment from the People's Vaccine Alliance.

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