10 countries call to temporarily exempt countries from WTO patent, IP

A mere signal to ensure timely and affordable access to vaccines and treatments will work as a big confidence-booster to help revive the world economy.

Judge's gavel, illustrative (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Judge's gavel, illustrative
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Ten countries have called on the World Trade Organization to exempt members from enforcing certain patents and other intellectual property rights under the organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS, for a limited period of time. The move seeks to ensure that intellectual property (IP) rights do not restrict the manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. A large proportion of WTO members support the proposal, which is also being backed by various international organizations, multilateral agencies and global civil society.
Unprecedented times call for unorthodox measures. We saw this in the efficacy of strict lockdowns in curtailing the spread of the pandemic. The International Monetary Fund’s October World Economic Outlook reported that the risk of worsening growth remains sizable. If the virus resurges, if progress on treatments and vaccines is slower than anticipated, or if countries’ access to them remains unequal, economic activity could be lower than expected, resulting in the need for renewed social distancing and tighter lockdowns.
The situation appears to be grimmer than predicted. We have already lost 7% of economic output from the baseline scenario projected in 2019. That translates to a loss of more than $6 trillion of global GDP. Even a 1% improvement in global GDP from that baseline would add more than $800 billion in global output, offsetting the loss to the world economy from the proposed WTO waiver.
A mere signal to ensure timely and affordable access to vaccines and treatments will work as a big confidence-booster to help revive the world economy. With the emergence of successful vaccines, there appears to be some hope on the horizon. But how will these be made accessible and affordable to the global population?
The fundamental question is whether there will be enough COVID-19 vaccines to go around. As things stand, even the most optimistic scenarios cannot assure access to vaccines and therapeutics for the majority of the world’s population, in rich as well as poor countries, by the end of 2021. All the members of the WTO have agreed that there is an urgent need to scale up manufacturing capacity to meet the massive global needs. The TRIPS waiver proposal seeks to fulfill this need by ensuring IP barriers do not get in the way of such increased manufacturing capacity.
Why existing flexibility under the TRIPS agreement is not enough
Flexibilities in place under the TRIPS agreement are not adequate, as they were not designed with pandemics in mind. Compulsory licenses are issued on a country-by-country, case-by-case and product-by-product basis, in which every jurisdiction with an IP regime has to issue separate compulsory licenses, making collaboration among countries extremely onerous. While we encourage the use of TRIPS flexibilities, these are time-consuming and cumbersome to implement. Their exclusive use cannot ensure timely access to affordable vaccines and treatments.
Similarly, we have not seen very encouraging progress on WHO’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool, or C-TAP initiative, which encourages voluntary contribution of IP, technology and data to support the global sharing and scaling up of manufacturing of COVID-19 medical products. Voluntary licenses, even where they exist, are shrouded in secrecy. Their terms and conditions are not transparent. Their scope is limited to specific amounts or for a limited subset of countries, thereby encouraging nationalism rather than true international collaboration.
Why is there a need to go beyond existing global cooperation initiatives?
Global cooperation initiatives such as the COVAX mechanism and the ACT Accelerator are inadequate to meet the massive needs of 7.8 billion people. The ACT-A initiative aims to procure two billion doses of vaccines by the end of 2021 and distribute them fairly around the world. With a two-dose regime, however, this will only cover one billion people. That means that even if ACT-A is fully financed and successful, which is not the case today, there would not be enough vaccines for the majority of the global population.
Past experience
During the initial few months of the current pandemic, we saw shelves emptied by those who had access to PPEs – masks, sanitizers, gloves and other essential COVID-19 items – even where there were not immediate needs.
The same should not happen with vaccines. The world was eventually able to ramp up manufacturing of these COVID-19 essentials as there were no IP barriers hindering such production. We now need the same pooling of IP rights and know-how for scaling up the manufacturing of vaccines and other medical treatments. Unfortunately, that has not been forthcoming, necessitating the need for the waiver.
It is the pandemic – an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime event – that has mobilized the collaboration of multiple stakeholders. The knowledge and skills held by scientists, researchers, public health experts and universities have enabled cross-country collaborations and enormous public funding that have facilitated the development of vaccines in record time – not the waiving of IP rights alone!
The way forward
The TRIPS waiver proposal is a targeted and proportionate response to the exceptional public health emergency the world faces today. Such a waiver is well within the provisions of Article IX of the Marrakesh Agreement that established the WTO. It can help ensure that human lives are not lost for want of timely and affordable access to vaccines. The adoption of the waiver will also reestablish the WTO’s credibility and show that the multilateral trading system continues to be relevant and can deliver in times of crisis. Now is the time for WTO members to act and adopt the waiver to save lives and help get the economy back on the path of quick revival.
While making the vaccines available was a test of science, making them accessible and affordable is going to be a test of humanity. History should remember us for the AAA rating: availability, accessibility and affordability of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, and not for a single A rating of availability only. Our future generations deserve nothing less.
The writer is the ambassador and permanent representative of India to the WTO.