Amid growing calls for vaccine equity, WTO members debate how to boost global access to coronavirus shots.
South Africa, India, and more than 100 other nations have called on the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily waive patents for COVID-19 vaccines, saying they are being prevented from immunising their people.
The two countries first made the appeal in October last year, calling on the WTO to waive provisions in a trade agreement governing intellectual property rights so medical products can be more easily accessed by developing nations. More than 100 nations have since joined the calls.
Endorsing requests for a waiver, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said earlier this month: “If a temporary waiver to patents cannot be issued now, during these unprecedented times, when will be the right time?”
At the core of the discussion stands a proposal submitted in October by South Africa and India to suspend the WTO’s agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.
The goal is to facilitate the transfer of technology and scientific knowledge to developing countries to ramp up the global production of vaccines and other necessary equipment.
Last month, more than 400 organisations in the United States joined forces calling on President Joe Biden to endorse the waiver, while 115 members of the European Commission issued a declaration urging the European Union to drop its opposition to the temporary suspension.
The African Union also backed the relaxing of rules on intellectual property (IP), calling it a “win-win for everybody”.
According to a campaign group called ONE, richer countries are hoarding excess doses of COVID-19 vaccines and buying one billion more than their citizens need, which prevents poorer nations from getting vaccinated this year.
“This huge vaccine excess is the embodiment of vaccine nationalism, with countries prioritising their own vaccination needs at the expense of other countries and the global recovery,” said ONE in a report last month.
ONE’s policy team added “a massive course correction” in distribution was needed if the world wanted to protect and save lives as the death toll from the pandemic approaches 2.5 million.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said last month just 10 countries had so far administered 75 percent of all vaccinations, describing it as “wildly uneven and unfair”.
At least 130 countries have not yet received a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, said Guterres.
“At this critical moment, vaccine equity is the biggest moral test before the global community,” he said.
Last week, Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) staged a protest at the WTO against what it said was the rich world’s reluctance to waive patents and allow more production of COVID-19 vaccines for poorer nations.
Activists seeking the waiver of intellectual property rules want the terms of the TRIPS agreement to be overridden to allow generic or other manufactures to make the new products.
“If we had the waiver, we’d be able in a number of countries to scale up production right now, which would allow for the diagnostics, the medicines, and the vaccines to get where they’re needed most,” Stephen Cornish, general director of MSF Switzerland, said last week.
“Right now, we are seeing just a trickle of vaccines making it to the global south, and this is just not acceptable in today’s world,” he said.
“Rich countries, the EU, the US, Canada and Switzerland … are blocking that derogation. And they are doing so in the name of profit and business and status quo instead of putting human lives above profit.”
Several high-income countries – including the United States, the United Kingdom and Switzerland – have argued waiving patents would hamper scientific innovation by deterring private investment.
Africa has been struggling to secure sufficient vaccines to start countrywide inoculation programmes for the continent’s 1.3 billion people.
Since the beginning of the year, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has urged wealthy countries not to hoard surplus COVID-19 vaccine supplies.
Ramaphosa, who chairs the African Union and whose nation has recorded nearly half the continent’s coronavirus deaths, said the world needed those who hoarded doses to release them for others to use.
Reporting from Johannesburg, Al Jazeera’s Fahmida Miller said African nations were particularly negatively affected by the current situation.
Some African countries including Ghana and the Ivory Coast have begun receiving their first doses through the UN-backed COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX) scheme, but many African nations have been left behind, she said.
“Despite COVID-19 drugs being tested on the continent, many nations in Africa still remain at the back of the queue,” said Miller.