The COVID-19 pandemic has killed at least five million people, impoverished hundreds of millions more and exposed deep ruptures between the Global North and South, the rich and the poor, the privileged and the vulnerable.
To date, world leaders have no plan to end the pandemic, even though the path to do so is clear. Ensuring global access to vaccines and making life-saving therapeutics, diagnostics and other medical tools available and accessible for all is the only way to end the vicious cycle of mass COVID-19 outbreaks fostering new variants, like delta and beyond, which lead to more mass outbreaks and thousands of needless deaths every day.
But there simply are not enough effective and affordable vaccines, tests and treatments manufactured and supplied to developing countries. One reason why is intellectual property (IP) monopolies that empower a few pharmaceutical corporations to control how much is produced, where it is produced and allocated, and at what price.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) requires countries to enforce these monopolies, creating significant obstacles to addressing public health emergencies, like the COVID-19 pandemic.
A few pharmaceutical corporations have benefitted from billions in government research, funding and direct subsidies. Yet almost two years into the pandemic, these firms’ limited production capacity and refusal to share technologies has resulted in such limited global supply and concentration in where medicines are produced, that only 4.5% of people in low-income countries have been vaccinated. In contrast, over 61% of European and 67% percent of U.S. populations are vaccinated.* There is no sign of these gaps in access to COVID-19 medications closing fast enough to control the pandemic. High income countries’ governments who host these major multinational pharmaceutical corporations have so far failed to utilize all legal and policy means to compel the companies to change.
Meanwhile the need for increasing and diversifying production in developing countries is spotlighted by limited vaccine supply now being prioritized for rich country booster shots, meanwhile most in low- and middle-income countries have not received their first doses, let alone the boosters they will also need. And now, as promising antiviral treatments for COVID-19 emerge, the same deadly access challenges are foreseeable, with access for people in low and middle countries threatened by IP barriers, high prices, and monopoly control over production and supply. A meaningful waiver of WTO intellectual property barriers would unlock more diverse and sustainable production, supply of and access to treatments as well as vaccines and diagnostic tests.
Yet, a full year has passed since a temporary waiver of the WTO TRIPS rules for COVID-19 products was first proposed by South Africa and India. The European Union (at Germany’s behest), Switzerland and the United Kingdom have blocked the rest of the WTO’s members that support enactment of a waiver.
All eyes will be on world leaders and their trade ministers at the Nov. 30 – Dec. 3 WTO ministerial to see if they are willing and able to take concrete action to adopt a comprehensive and meaningful TRIPS waiver and remove IP barriers underlying today’s supply shortage, and the structural and systemic inequality and inequity in access to all lifesaving medical tools for COVID19. The ministerial is a key global meeting when the TRIPS waiver could be finalized. It should have been approved many months ago during a regular WTO General Council meeting, when waivers also can be enacted.
That’s why public health, labor, development and other civil society organizations are holding events worldwide, leading up to and during the ministerial, to put pressure on governments to agree to a comprehensive TRIPS waiver. Pharmaceutical corporations are relying on the few countries that remain opposed to block a waiver and instead promote meaningless “declarations” about trade and health.
A comprehensive, temporary COVID-19 waiver is necessary to break the pharmaceutical monopolies imposed by the current rules of the WTO TRIPS Agreement. These monopolies are thwarting countries’ wider production of COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and diagnostic tests. To end the pandemic and save lives, we will keep fighting for the necessary waiver until it is adopted and implemented.
We call on people around the world, concerned about the unnecessary death and suffering caused by the greed of Big Pharma billionaires, to TAKE ACTION to protest and put political pressure on the governments which have been blocking the waiver. The European Union (led by Germany and backed by Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia and Sweden) Switzerland, and the UK, are the opponents. Meanwhile, the United States announced support for a waiver on vaccines but has neither engaged to create a text to be adopted at the ministerial nor pressured the close U.S. allies opposing the waiver.
If you reside in an opposing country, we encourage you to organize a demonstration or action, or check out this map at https://rethinktrade.org/toolkit/wto-ministerial-global-call-to-action/ and get in touch with others who are doing so. If you do not reside in one of those countries, we encourage the organization of actions at the embassies or missions of the above countries.
People united worldwide creating pressure on governments country-by-country is how we win a comprehensive waiver and help end the pandemic!
*Percentages refer to people who have had at least one shot, data accessed Nov. 12, 2021. https://ourworldindata.org/covid-vaccinations