The World Trade Organisation (WTO) failed the developing and underdeveloped countries again as its 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) adopted an inadequate text on the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver after a long discussion in Geneva on the last day.
Despite 15 million deaths and a two-year global campaign for TRIPS waiver to deal with COVID-19, the WTO surrendered to big pharma and adopted a “woefully inadequate text that does little more than clarify existing rules of the TRIPS agreement”, a joint statement issued by Public Services International (PSI)—a global union federation for workers in public services, including social services and health care—and around 300 unions and civil society organisations, stated.
“The watered-down text was adopted because the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom (UK) and Switzerland sided with big pharmaceutical companies and blocked the proposed text for almost two years.”
The agreement only applies to vaccine production and requires WTO members to decide on an extension to cover treatment and therapeutics after six months. It will apply for five years. Importantly, the footnote on eligibility and which countries could be included based on the number of vaccines they have exported has been dropped.
Instead of responding to thIrular tribe students in an ITK centre. Image courtesy: Shalinie crisis or putting frontline health workers and people over profit, the 164-member WTO has deployed its “notoriously exclusionary, oppressive processes” to “force through a sham text that will not improve global access to COVID-19 medicines because it not only fails to remove IP obstacles but outrageously adds further constraints to existing WTO flexibilities for medicines production”, the statement reads.
The WTO is celebrating the TRIPS text as a “hard-won compromise” but the organisation is a “barrier” to global health, workers’ rights, justice and solidarity.
Condemning the EU, the UK and Switzerland for blocking the waiver, the statement called on governments to act outside of the WTO to ensure everyone has access to vaccines, diagnostics and medicines necessary to save lives and end the pandemic.
Criticising the IP barriers that “shamefully remain a deadly obstruction” limiting global access to vaccines, tests and treatments, the signatories said: “A few wealthy countries promoting pharmaceutical corporation interests have been able to block the use of the WTO’s waiver mechanism to temporarily suspend such barriers despite more than 100 WTO member countries supporting a waiver.”
Pointing to the “outrageous situation”, the signatories asked governments to take immediate action to “bypass the WTO’s prioritisation of pharmaceutical monopolies over human lives”.
Accusing the EU, the UK and Switzerland of betraying billions of people worldwide who still need access to lifesaving vaccines, medications and diagnostics, the unions and civil society organisation said that they acted on “behalf of pharmaceutical interests” and “blocked the removal of intellectual property barriers to global vaccines, tests, and treatment access”.
“In failing to deliver on a vaccine waiver for which it announced support and blocking the inclusion of treatments and tests, the United States has also turned its back on a planet desperate for the COVID-19 pandemic to end.”
Terming the inability to reach a TRIP waiver deal, demanded by the vast majority of the countries and by public health experts, health workers, generic medicine manufacturers, human rights advocates, labour unions, scores of Nobel laureates and former heads of state and even the Pope, a “failure”, the signatories said that it shows “how broken and dangerously out-of-touch the WTO remains”.
Stating that health needs cannot be “subservient” to the profits of pharmaceutical monopolies, the civil society organisations and unions called on governments to “pledge not to use the WTO’s and other trade and investment agreements’ dispute mechanisms or other means to stop or dissuade countries from producing, distributing or using medical technologies or from sharing information on how to do so regardless of WTO and free trade agreement IP rules”.
The signatories asked governments to take every step necessary to save lives and end the pandemic, including by fully using the WTO’s existing, albeit limited, flexibilities. Nations should also “circumvent the WTO’s pharmaceutical monopoly rules when possible and outright defy those rules when needed”, they added.
The WTO allowed a few very economically-powerful members to “run roughshod” over the wishes of more than 100 countries to waive TRIPS obstacles to global access to COVID-19 medical tools.
“The TRIPS waiver text proposed in October 2020 by South Africa and India enjoyed co-sponsorship from 65 WTO member countries but outrageously negotiations on this text were never allowed. History will harshly record the WTO’s contribution to COVID vaccine, treatment and test apartheid.”
In fact, the WTO’s threat to global access to medicines did not start with COVID-19. “For decades, the WTO has steadfastly refused to put shared global priorities like saving lives and ending pandemics ahead of the narrow profit and power-seeking interest of pharmaceutical monopolies. This was clear at the turn of the century during the peak of the HIV/AIDS crisis and has only become even more clear with the WTO’s unconscionable inaction during the COVID crisis today.”
Terming the WTO’s IP rules “draconian”, the unions said that they have “already contributed to prolonging the current pandemic and, if countries can’t get these rules out of the way, they will continue to contribute to massive public health, economic and social damage during future pandemics as well”.
Pandemics are not the only matters of concern. Billions of people “lack access to life-saving medicines that prevent, treat and cure illnesses because intellectual property regimes distort research priorities, create scarcity by artificially restricting supplies and allow excessive pricing and inequitable distribution that affects the poor and people living in lower-income countries.”
“Countries that don’t accept these rules are subjected to trade threats and repercussions, undermining their own sovereign processes and rules. This cannot continue. The world must not allow the deadly vaccine apartheid that characterised the first generation of COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing and distribution to be recreated when it comes to COVID-19 diagnostics, treatment and second-generation vaccines,” the statement further reads.
The People’s Vaccine Alliance (PVA) also accused the EU, the United States, the UK and Switzerland, of blocking a “meaningful IP waiver”. “I think that the rich countries are actually doing pharmaceutical companies’ bidding for them,” Anna Marriot, policy lead, PVA, told EURACTIV.