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Protesters carry mock coffins in London

People carry symbolic coffins in front of the British prime minister's office in London on October 12, 2021. (Photo: Hasan Esen/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Global Fight for a People’s Vaccine Is at a Crucial Turning Point

We need a People’s Lobby to counter the power of Big Pharma.

After 18 months of deadlock, negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) over lifting intellectual property rights for vaccines and other essential medicines have suddenly started to move fast. But the details of a leaked tentative agreement on patents show that the EU and other defenders of Big Pharma are trying to pull a quick one on the rest of the world.

The fact that the EU has felt compelled to drop its opposition to the waiver is a testament to the tenacity of the movement for the People’s Vaccine around the world.

The Council of Canadians and its allies are urging the Trudeau government to get off its hands and start pushing for a real solution to the vaccine inequality caused by Big Pharma’s monopoly over these life-saving medicines.

Last week, it was reported that a compromise agreement has been reached between the US, the EU, South Africa, and India (known as “the Quad”) that would temporarily suspend patents and thus break the stranglehold of Big Pharma over vaccine production. 

But the devil, as they say, is in the details. The compromise text leaked by the EU falls far short of the broad waiver that South Africa, India, and over one hundred other countries have been demanding since October 2020. The EU compromise would leave intact numerous provisions of the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and even add new ones in some cases. Many critics say the EU’s proposed solution is worse than no deal at all. 

The Council of Canadians has joined with 17 other organizations fighting for a People’s Vaccine to call on Canada to reject this false solution. In a letter sent on March 25 to International Trade Minister Mary Ng and Minister of Innovation François-Philippe Champagne, the Council and its allies urge real action to lift the barriers to vaccine access that intellectual property continues to pose.

While the offer to lift patents on vaccines in some countries is a welcome change of attitude for the EU, the compromise text contains so many qualifications and caveats that the sincerity of the gesture is in doubt.

The letter to Ng and Champagne, signed by national unions, development NGOs, and human rights and health justice organizations, details the “numerous flaws” of the EU’s proposed compromise that limit its scope and impact: patents on therapeutics and other medical products remain in force, as do vaccine patents in China and “developed” countries like Canada; other forms of intellectual property beyond patents (clinical trial data, regulatory filing, trade secrets etc.) are omitted from the waiver; and new, onerous conditions are imposed on generics. All these shortcomings make the deal add up to much less than meets the eye.

Going forward with such a flawed agreement would not meaningfully improve access to vaccines around the world, the letter warns. Indeed, we would be repeating the same errors made early on in the pandemic:

"Under WTO-enforced intellectual property rules, a few pharmaceutical companies control the supplies and prices of lifesaving COVID-19–related products and have sold most vaccines and treatments to rich countries, making tens of billions in revenue from products developed with government funding. The waiver compromise, by not including treatments and diagnostics, could allow similar situations to unfold with respect to life-saving treatments."

Parliamentarians around the world have joined their voices with that of the People’s Vaccine movement in denouncing the draft agreement. The EU Left in the European parliament has panned the deal as “nothing more than a face-saving exercise.” While welcoming the fact that the EU negotiators had backed off their blanket opposition to any form of a waiver, the Left EU parliamentarians insist that the struggle against Big Pharma’s vaccine monopoly must continue.

In the UK, 31 MPs have sent a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson calling on the Tory government to reject the EU-crafted deal and work for the adoption of the original waiver proposal. Dr. Dan Poulter, the Tory chair of the all-party parliamentary group on global health and one of the signatories of the letter, said: “In a global pandemic that has resulted in nearly 20 million deaths, we must use all tools at our disposal to save lives. This text leaves too much left in the toolbox.” 

Still, the fact that the EU has felt compelled to drop its opposition to the waiver is a testament to the tenacity of the movement for the People’s Vaccine around the world. "Under the pressure of years of mobilization, the EU finally reluctantly admits that patents are an obstacle to global vaccine access," said Belgian Left MEP Marc Botenga, commenting on the deal in the European Parliament.

Canada, shamefully, has yet to follow suit. Speaking before the Foreign Affairs committee on March 21, Canada’s trade diplomats and WTO representatives repeatedly questioned the utility and necessity of a TRIPS waiver while claiming they were not opposed. Half-hearted multilateral efforts to distribute surplus doses to lower-income countries have left 2.8 billion people still waiting to get their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, but officials assured the Foreign Affairs committee that vaccine donations would suffice. 

This is consistent with Canada’s duplicitous stance since October 2020, which has involved resisting all efforts at the WTO to temporarily suspend intellectual property rules while publicly denying having done so back home. Behind a façade of seeking compromise, the Trudeau government is in perfect harmony with Big Pharma’s views on this issue. 

The situation cries out for an urgent change of direction by Canada. But we will not see this change happen without a major push from you and I. That’s why we need a People’s Lobby to counter the power of Big Pharma.

In May 2021, 71 MPs from across party lines spoke out in favour of ending Big Pharma’s monopoly on COVID-19 vaccines. They – and many others – urgently need to raise their voices again, rather than letting the vaccine makers’ lobbyists dictate Canada’s stance on this crucial global issue.


This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

© 2021 Council of Canadians
 Nikolas Barry-Shaw

Nikolas Barry-Shaw

Nikolas Barry-Shaw is Trade and Privatization Campaigner with the Council of Canadians.

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