The World Trade Organization (WTO) has praised a provisional deal to waive patent rights for COVID-19 vaccines after more than a year of deadlock, though drugmakers said the move risked undermining the industry’s ability to respond to future health crises.
The United States, the European Union, India and South Africa agreed on Tuesday on key elements for a waiver.
It now needs the backing of the 164 members of the WTO, which takes decisions based on consensus, so rejection by just one country could still block an accord.
“This is a major step forward,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said on Wednesday. “But we are not there yet. We have more work to do to ensure that we have the support of the entire WTO membership.”
If approved, the agreement would mean countries could permit domestic manufacturers to produce vaccines without patent-holder consent for three or five years. But only developing countries accounting for less than 10 percent of global exports of COVID-19 shots in 2021 could take advantage of the waivers.
That would appear to exclude China but clear India, which banned vaccine exports for much of 2021.
Okonjo-Iweala stressed that internal domestic consultations were going on in the four parties to the compromise agreement, and some points still needed smoothing out.
Switzerland, home to several major pharmaceutical companies, has notably repeatedly voiced its unwillingness to budge.
“In the WTO, we decide by consensus, and this has not yet been achieved,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “We are ready to roll up our sleeves again to … bring about a full agreement as quickly as possible.”
Since October 2020, South Africa and India have called for IP rights to be temporarily lifted for coronavirus vaccines during the pandemic in order to boost production and address the gaping inequality in access between rich and poor nations.
However the idea was met with fierce opposition from pharmaceutical giants and most of their host countries. They have argued that patents are not the main roadblocks to scaling up production and warned the move could hamper innovation.
Global drugmakers in the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) said the move could undermine their ability to respond to future crises.
“Biopharmaceutical companies reaffirm their position that weakening patents now when it is widely acknowledged that there are no longer supply constraints of COVID-19 vaccines, sends the wrong signal,” IFPMA Director General Thomas Cueni said.
The People’s Vaccine Alliance, a coalition of more than 90 campaign groups, said the proposal ignored other intellectual property barriers such as trade secrets and failed to include treatments that could save millions of lives.
“In a crisis, half measures are not acceptable,” it said.
The provisional agreement said WTO members should decide within six months on an extension to cover diagnostics and therapeutics.
There were no immediate comments from Pfizer and its German vaccine partner BioNTech. The two have pledged to provide two billion doses of their COVID vaccine to low- and middle-income countries in 2021 and 2022.
There was no immediate comment from AstraZeneca, the maker of another major COVID vaccine.
COVAX, a global programme aiming to provide vaccines to poorer nations, has been struggling this year to place more than 300 million doses, as supply and donations have ramped up.
Poorer nations have faced challenges ranging from limits on cold-chain shortage to vaccine hesitancy and inadequate funds to support distribution.