Health justice advocates gathered outside Pfizer Worldwide Headquarters in Manhattan on March 11, 2021, where they called on the pharmaceutical giant to share Covid-19 vaccine formulas and transfer technology to boost the global manufacturing of doses in the face of massively unequal distribution. (Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Health justice advocates gathered outside Pfizer Worldwide Headquarters in Manhattan on March 11, 2021, where they called on the pharmaceutical giant to share Covid-19 vaccine formulas and transfer technology to boost the global manufacturing of doses in the face of massively unequal distribution. (Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

'Complete Garbage': Campaigners Blast WTO Alternative to Covid Patent Waiver

"The E.U. fealty to Big Pharma represented in this text is exposing the world to the risk of endless pandemic and ever-more-dangerous variants," said one critic, "and it could take down the WTO as collateral damage."

Global health justice advocates on Tuesday rejected the World Trade Organization's corporate-friendly alternative to India and South Africa's widely supported motion to waive the intellectual property monopolies that are undermining the increased production of lifesaving Covid-19 vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics by generic manufacturers.

The WTO's alternative proposal--leaked on March 15 and submitted formally on Tuesday--"not only fails to remove intellectual property barriers standing in the way of global access to Covid vaccines, tests, and treatments, it actually imposes some new ones," Arthur Stamoulis, executive director of the Trade Justice Education Fund, said in a statement. "The fact that it took the WTO over a year to come up with this completely backwards proposal shows just how broken and out of touch the corporate-centered institution remains."

More than five million people and counting have died directly from Covid-19 since October 2, 2020, when India and South Africa first introduced their popular Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver proposal to suspend coronavirus-related patents for the duration of the pandemic. Millions more have died as an indirect result of the ongoing public health emergency.

Unlike India and South Africa's proposed waiver, which is backed by more than 100 WTO members, "this text does not suspend intellectual property barriers and even adds new conditions that undermine countries' abilities to use existing WTO rules allowing production of medicines without patentholder permission," said Lori Wallach, director of Rethink Trade at the American Economic Liberties Project.

"How can it be that in the face of a global pandemic that has taken 15 million lives and destroyed billions more livelihoods, in two years the WTO cannot get out of the way of global access to medicines that governments paid pharmaceutical firms billions to develop and distribute?" she asked.

Knowledge sharing and technology transfer, experts say, would lead to a greater global supply and more equitable distribution of vaccines, tests, and treatments. However, many wealthy governments, led by the European Union, have teamed up with pharmaceutical giants to stonewall attempts to challenge highly profitable intellectual property monopolies--after they gobbled up far more jabs than they needed.

"The E.U. fealty to Big Pharma represented in this text," Wallach added, "is exposing the world to the risk of endless pandemic and ever-more-dangerous variants, and it could take down the WTO as collateral damage."

Epidemiologists estimate that billions of additional doses are needed to adequately inoculate the world, making expanded generic production an urgent necessity. Just 15.7% of people in low-income countries have received at least one shot to date, and the World Health Organization has warned that in the absence of far-reaching change, the injustice of vaccine apartheid is likely to be replicated when it comes to treatments.

Ambassador Lansana Gberie of Sierra Leone, chair of the WTO's TRIPS Council, reportedly described the text unveiled Tuesday as an "agreement reached" by the so-called "quad"--the E.U., United States, India, and South Africa--even though only the E.U. has publicly endorsed the deal that the Trade Justice Education Fund calls "complete garbage."

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala attended the informal TRIPS Council meeting in person--an uncommon move that likely signals her desire for swift action. The council is expected to discuss and possibly agree to the deal, which has been sent to all 164 WTO members for their consideration, during its meeting scheduled for Friday.

According to Melinda St. Louis, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch division, "The text just tabled is nearly identical to the one that leaked on March 15--which civil society and academic experts around the world decried as 'the lowest common denominator,' an 'abomination,' and 'worse than nothing.'"

"Criticism of this text has poured in from civil society in South Africa, India, the U.S., the E.U., and around the world, as countries urge members to keep working for a true TRIPS waiver," said St. Louis. "The only changes are the additions of brackets around the country eligibility requirements and patent listing--indicating there is less agreement on those elements, though any of it can still be changed."

As Public Citizen noted, the March 15 leaked document:

  • Would impose new barriers on countries attempting to remove intellectual property barriers and increase Covid medicines production. Instead of waiving barriers, it would impose new conditions limiting the existing WTO rules that now allow countries to issue compulsory licenses for patented products, for example a new obligation to identify all patents covered by a waiver application;
  • Does not cover Covid tests or treatments. The leaked text would cover only vaccines, at a stage in the pandemic when world leaders acknowledge that testing and treatments are critically important. Tests and treatments are to be considered six months later if this text is agreed to, but the WTO is notorious for missing deadlines;
  • Does not cover all of the intellectual property barriers to Covid medicine access. It reiterates existing rules on patents while adding new barriers. It does not even address the other categories of intellectual property covered in the original waiver proposal: trade secrets, undisclosed data, copyright, and industrial design. Many key Covid-19 vaccines and medicines are protected by thorny thickets of intertwined IP protection, not just a patent or two; and
  • Excludes entire countries. It applies only to "developing countries" that "exported <10%" of the world's vaccines in 2021 (which would exclude China and Brazil), as well as developed countries that might export to countries in need. It may also inadvertently exclude least developed countries.

"Only the E.U. has signaled its support for the text, which is not surprising, as it supports their stance of using existing (insufficient) WTO rules in lieu of a meaningful waiver," St. Louis continued. "India and South Africa have not agreed to the text, and [U.S. Trade Representative] Katherine Tai has repeatedly pushed back on the notion of a quad compromise, insisting 'that there has been no agreement.'"

"It would be wholly inappropriate," she added, "for the WTO to eke out a deal on this text to attempt to show the institution's relevance rather than solve the real-world problems in global vaccine equity exacerbated by WTO rules."

Given that news of the WTO's corporate-friendly alternative text comes just two days before the one-year anniversary of President Joe Biden's historic announcement of U.S. support for a TRIPS waiver for vaccines, Public Citizen announced that a candlelight vigil for vaccine equity will be held at the White House and in cities around the country on Wednesday.

"The vigil will include a projector and oversized screen which will play videos from Be A Hero's Ady Barkan, and other videos from health providers and public health experts from South Africa, India, and Chile," said St. Louis. "They will call on President Biden to secure a true TRIPS waiver that covers Covid-19 vaccines, testing, and treatments and demand that Congress pass funding to vaccinate the world and save lives."

According to Stamoulis, "The Biden administration can best demonstrate its support for vaccine equity by joining with South Africa, India, and others in submitting an immediate joint amendment that would replace this proposal with language that actually helps low- and middle-income countries produce more of the critical medical technologies that are needed to save lives and end the pandemic."

"In the meantime," he continued, "President Biden can help save lives and end the pandemic by using his existing authority to compel pharmaceutical monopolies to share their vaccine and treatment-making know-how with qualified producers around the world."

While Big Pharma refuses to share its vaccine recipes--raking in billions of dollars in profits by monopolizing publicly funded knowledge--the federal government owns a patent for a key spike-protein technology that Pfizer, Moderna, and other companies used to develop jabs, which gives it the legal authority to distribute ingredient lists and manufacturing instructions.

As Public Citizen has stressed for months, the Biden administration could, with an investment of just $25 billion dollars--around 3% of what the U.S. spends on its military each year--establish regional manufacturing hubs around the world to produce eight billion coronavirus vaccine doses in less than a year.

"Without strong U.S. leadership," Stamoulis added, "thousands will continue to die needlessly each day, and the world will remain vulnerable to new Covid variants that can undo much of the progress made against the pandemic to date."

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.