After days of deliberations at the 12th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation in Geneva, the participant countries on Friday agreed on a partial intellectual property rights waiver for the production of Covid-19 vaccines for the next five years.
The agreement, however, left out diagnostics and therapeutics from the ambit of the waiver, leaving health advocacy groups and several countries unhappy.
The agreement on a Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS waiver, would help manufacturers in underdeveloped and developing countries access trade secrets on how to produce a Covid-19 vaccine from local regulatory authorities.
An intellectual property rights waiver relaxes restrictions on patents, industrial designs and copyright.
KM Gopakumar, a member of non-profit advocacy organisation Third World Network, was among those who sat through ministerial meetings on Thursday as the countries tried to reach an agreement.
He told Scroll.in said that the decision was important as it could ensure safety and availability of vaccines. “It is not all that we wanted,” he said. “But it will help countries get access to much-needed booster shots.”
He explained that under an earlier TRIPS agreement, a vaccine manufacturer could not export the bulk of its vaccines to another country, and the majority of the production had to be retained for the home country.
“Vaccines are produced in only a few countries, which made it difficult to export large quantities to other countries during periods of crisis,” Gopakumar said. “Now the company can share its trade secrets with regulatory authority in other countries. Suppose a manufacturer in any other country obtains a compulsory license, they can get the trade secret from the regulatory authority and begin manufacturing.”
The TRIPS waiver on tools required for the treatment of Covid-19 was first proposed in 2020 by South Africa and India. Over 100 countries supported the need for the move. In the last 20 months, the draft underwent prolonged deliberations and modifications.
The United Kingdom, United States of America, Switzerland and several countries in the European Union resisted the waiver at the ministerial meeting held between June 12 to June 16. The United States expressed concerns over sharing vaccine technology with China.
Eventually, the modified draft did not include diagnostics and therapeutics.
The decision to include a waiver on production and supply of Covid-19 diagnostics and therapeutics will be taken after six months, the final WTO agreement on Friday stated.
The absence of a waiver on diagnostic techniques and drugs will mean that the cost and availability of treatment drugs and testing kits will continue to remain a problem, especially for low and middle income countries.
During a press meet in Geneva on June 15, Ana Maria, from Oxfam, a global organisation to fight poverty, said that in absence of an entire TRIPS waiver, the World Trade Organisation’s response is of no use.
“The EU [European Union] prevented the WTO from discussing anything about waiver, leading to the weak draft that we have today…From a humanitarian perspective, countries must collaborate to share medical tools and ensure rapid distribution,” she said.
Dr Christos Christou, international president of Médecins Sans Frontières, said the agreement has failed to offer an effective and meaningful solution to help increase people’s access to medical tools during the pandemic, since it does not apply to all countries.
“Governments should consider using all available legal and policy options, including suspending intellectual property on Covid-19 medical tools, issuing compulsory licenses on key medical technologies to overcome patent barriers, and adopting new laws and policies to ensure the disclosure of essential technical information needed to support generic production and supply,” he said.
Candice Sehoma, South Africa Advocacy Officer at Médecins Sans Frontières said that the proposed waiver was too narrow as it only focused on vaccines.
“The proposal states that member countries can revisit the issue of therapeutics and diagnostics after six months,” she said. “But the current proposal took so long – it took 20 months to prepare. What is the guarantee that after six months, we will actually move on to discussion on therapeutics and diagnostics and implement a waiver?”