The World Trade Organization (WTO) talks on a proposal by India and South Africa to temporarily suspend intellectual property (IP) rules related to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments stalled on Thursday after wealthy countries blocked the idea.
India and South Africa had approached the global trade body in October, calling on it to waive parts of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) saying the IP waiver will allow drugmakers in poor countries to start production of effective vaccines sooner. Supporters of the waiver, which include dozens of developing and least-developed countries and NGOs, said the WTO's IP rules were acting as a barrier to urgent scale-up of production of vaccines and other much needed medical equipment in poor countries. Cuba, Indonesia, Senegal and Thailand are capable of making vaccines.
The suspension of rights such as patents, industrial designs, copyright and protection of undisclosed information would ensure "timely access to affordable medical products including vaccines and medicines or to scaling-up of research, development, manufacturing and supply of medical products essential to combat COVID-19," they said.
The WTO talks took place as some wealthy countries face criticism for cornering billions of COVID shots — many times the size of their populations — while leaving poor countries struggling for supplies. Experts say the global scramble for vaccines, or vaccine nationalism, risks prolonging the pandemic.
The proposal was vehemently opposed by wealthy nations like the US and Britain as well as the European Union, who said that a ban would stifle innovation at pharmaceutical companies by robbing them of the incentive to make huge investments in research and development. This would be especially counterproductive during the current pandemic which needs the drugmakers to remain on their toes to deal with a mutating virus, they argue.
"We have to recognize that this virus knows no boundaries, it travels around the globe and the response to it should also be global. It should be based on international solidarity," said Ellen 't Hoen, the director of Medicines Law & Policy — a nonprofit campaigning for greater access to medicines. "Many of the large-scale vaccine manufacturers are based in developing countries. All the production capacity that exists should be exploited…and that does require the sharing of knowhow and the technology by those who have it in their hands," she told DW.