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Winnie Byanyima speaks to the press

UNAIDS executive director Winnie Byanyima speaks to the press on July 3, 2020 in Geneva. (Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

'We Are Choosing Death': Byanyima, Stiglitz Slam WTO Inaction on Vaccine Patents

Winnie Byanyima, the head of UNAIDS, said rich countries have chosen to "protect the monopolies and profits of pharma companies, and millions of people have died who shouldn't have died."

Jake Johnson

UNAIDS executive director Winnie Byanyima and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz this week offered a grim assessment of the state of patent waiver talks at the World Trade Organization, warning that sustained obstruction by rich countries has undermined hopes of a final deal and left billions without access to Covid-19 vaccines and treatments.

"The drug companies did not want a quick response. The slower the response, the higher their profits."

"In a pandemic, sharing technology is life or death, and we are choosing death," Byanyima said at a press conference held less than two weeks before the WTO's 12th Ministerial Conference in Geneva on June 12-15, when representatives from WTO member nations will gather to discuss a range of global issues, including massive and persistent vaccine inequities.

"Rich countries have an opportunity to do the right thing," said Byanyima. "In the coming few weeks, I implore them to put people ahead of profits. Hoarding the rights and recipes to life-saving, pandemic-ending medicines means letting people die, letting the pandemic struggle on, endangering everyone, and undermining the global economy."

Stiglitz, a professor at Columbia University, stressed the role that pharmaceutical companies have played in preventing governments from waiving patents and expanding the production of publicly funded vaccines and therapeutics

"The drug companies did not want a quick response," said Stiglitz. "The slower the response, the higher their profits. More people died, but that's not their concern. Their concern was profits over people's lives."

In October 2020, India and South Africa introduced a proposal at the WTO that would temporarily waive a major intellectual property agreement known as TRIPS in an effort to expand vaccine production, particularly in developing countries that have been denied sufficient access.

While many low-income nations have the capacity to produce mRNA-based coronavirus vaccines, patent protections and pharmaceutical companies' refusal to share their vaccine recipes have left poorer countries dependent on flimsy donation schemes.

"It should have happened long ago. Instead, negotiation has been derailed by a number of rich countries."

Proponents argue that a comprehensive TRIPS waiver combined with vaccine technology transfers—whether voluntary or mandated by governments—would empower low-income nations to produce their own vaccines without the threat of legal retribution from Big Pharma, enabling greater access and potentially forestalling the emergence of dangerous new coronavirus variants.

But rich nations—including European Union members, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States—and the powerful pharmaceutical industry have repeatedly derailed TRIPS waiver talks over the past year and a half as millions of people have died of Covid-19 worldwide.

"It will be difficult for us to live on this planet in a way of collaborating, of solidarity, of give and take to each other, if a few rich countries can hold out at the cost of lives in poorer countries," Byanyima said Wednesday. "This is not a way to go into the future."

At present, there's no clear path toward a deal to suspend patent protections.

Public health campaigners say recent proposals that the WTO and rich nation governments have characterized as potential compromise agreements veer so far from India and South Africa's original proposal that they can't be described as waivers at all.

Stiglitz argued one so-called compromise draft that was leaked in March and formally submitted to the WTO in May is "similar to that which is advocated by Europe, reflecting the interest of the pharmaceutical industry."

"The fact that the advanced countries, in Europe in particular, are not willing to put the lives into account of millions of people all over the world has undermined support for globalization and is leading to a more divided world with untold consequences going forward," the economist said.

Byanyima added that patent waiver negotiations should have been "simple and straightforward," given the enormous human costs of inaction in the face of a deadly public health emergency.

"It is frankly the minimum we should expect in the middle of a pandemic, when people are dying, to ensure that governments can take steps to protect public health, without WTO rules coming in the way," said Byanyima. "And it should have happened long ago... Instead, negotiation has been derailed by a number of rich countries."

The press conference came as Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization, warned that reported coronavirus infections and deaths are "increasing in the Americas, while deaths are also increasing in the Western Pacific region and in Africa," the continent with the lowest coronavirus vaccination rate.

"Once again," said Tedros, "the pandemic is not over."

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