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Activists protest pharma monopolies

Activists stage a protest at the World Trade Organization's headquarters in Geneva on June 15, 2022. (Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

In Last-Ditch Push, Campaigners Urge WTO to Reject 'Indefensible' Vaccine Patent Deal

A coalition of 150 public health groups called on World Trade Organization members to "demand a real and effective" patent waiver for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments.

Jake Johnson

Global public health advocates on Wednesday launched a last-ditch pressure campaign aimed at stopping the World Trade Organization from approving a patent deal that they say would do little to combat the still-spreading coronavirus.

In fact, the campaigners argue in an open letter to WTO ministers gathered in Geneva that the draft text currently under discussion could establish even more intellectual property barriers, further hindering the production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics—and potentially undermining low-income nations' ability to fight future pandemics.

"People continue to die from Covid-19 without access to lifesaving treatments."

"People continue to die from Covid-19 without access to lifesaving treatments," reads the letter, which was published on what was originally supposed to be the final day of the WTO's 12th Ministerial Conference.

The gathering was extended until mid-afternoon Thursday, local time, as WTO ministers continue to negotiate possible changes to the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and other issues.

The 150-group public health coalition—which includes Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam International, and the South Africa-based Health Justice Initiative—argued Wednesday that it is "indefensible that the draft ministerial decision does not immediately apply to all Covid-19 medical tools, including therapeutics and diagnostics."

Furthermore, the coalition wrote, the draft is "discriminatory as it arbitrarily excludes some of the world's largest producers of medical tools and 'encourages developing countries with export capacity to opt out' from using the proposed decision to produce and supply medical tools."

"This is contradictory and counterproductive to saving people's lives by ensuring the access to medical tools they need," the groups warned. "It is unacceptable that the text restricts the free movement and rapid distribution of needed medical products during a global pandemic by imposing a ban on reexportation of Covid-19 vaccines produced under the decision. This restriction cannot be justified."

In the place of the deeply flawed draft text, advocates urged WTO ministers to unite behind a sweeping patent waiver such as India and South Africa's original TRIPS proposal, which was first introduced in October 2020. An estimated 30,000 people have died of Covid-19 each day since India and South Africa introduced their waiver.

During a Tuesday briefing, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted that three million coronavirus infections and 8,737 deaths were reported globally last week.

"We cannot allow ourselves to become numb to these numbers," said Tedros. "There is no acceptable level of deaths from Covid-19 when we have the tools to prevent, detect, and treat this disease."

Proponents of the original patent waiver plan—including the more than 100 WTO member countries that endorsed it—argue it would enable developing nations to produce their own coronavirus vaccines without fear of legal reprisals from the pharmaceutical industry, which has lobbied aggressively against the proposal.

A handful of rich countries—including Germany, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom—have joined Big Pharma in opposing the patent waiver, and the U.S. has been accused of "dragging its feet" at WTO talks despite expressing support for a waiver last year.

"The WTO must begin to act on behalf of all countries it claims to represent—not on behalf of a few rich countries."

"The draft ministerial decision on the TRIPS agreement is inadequate and contradictory to the WTO's foundational principles, and results from a flawed and exclusionary process," the public health campaigners wrote in their letter Wednesday. "We therefore call on you, as trade ministers, to not accept this current text and demand a real and effective TRIPS waiver."

India's trade minister has also criticized the draft text under negotiation, calling it a "half-baked" proposal that "will not allow us to make any vaccines."

"They have no intentions of allowing therapeutics and diagnostics," Piyush Goyal said Tuesday, "and if at all they try to say that we are the cause for its collapse, I think we should unanimously speak to the world and tell them that no, ideally we want a holistic solution including therapeutic and diagnostics."

More than two years into the coronavirus pandemic, just 18% of people in low-income countries have received at least one coronavirus vaccine dose as pharmaceutical companies cling to their monopoly control over vaccine production, resulting in higher prices, bigger profits for drug firms, and an "artificial rationing" of doses.

"With 15 million dead, lifesaving Covid treatments and mRNA vaccines remain unavailable to most," Lori Wallach, director of the Rethink Trade program at the American Economic Liberties Project, wrote in a series of tweets Wednesday. "One reason: World Trade Organization intellectual property barriers."

"The problem," Wallach added, "is the whole system has broken down because the WTO is too friendly to corporations...  We all know that a few pharma corporations have made tens of billions of dollars by exploiting intellectual property monopolies to limit where/how much of the most effective Covid-19 vaccines and treatments can be made."

Hugo López-Gatell, Mexico's undersecretary of prevention and health promotion, warned in an op-ed for Al Jazeera on Tuesday that "global health is on its deathbed" as the WTO and European nations attempt to advance a proposal that "would actually add more barriers to countries seeking to produce or import generic supplies."

"Rich countries must give ground and return to a text closer to that originally proposed by South Africa and India," López-Gatell argued. "And the WTO must begin to act on behalf of all countries it claims to represent—not on behalf of a few rich countries in the pockets of the pharmaceutical giants."


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