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Vaccine Access Negotiations to Resume as New Variants Spread

Vaccine access negotiations are at critical juncture. While many countries support the intellectual property rights waiver, including the European parliament the European Union does not. Credit: PAHO/Karen González

Melbourne, Australia , Aug 30 2021 (IPS) - A committee that has spent almost a year negotiating the terms of a temporary intellectual property waiver for Covid-19 medicines will reconvene in September after pausing for the European Summer.

As new variants spread rapidly around the world, the deadlock in the World Trade Organization Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Committee has potentially further delayed access to vaccines and other medicines for billions of people in low- and middle-income countries.

The waiver, initially proposed by India and South Africa in October 2020 has attracted sponsorship and support from several other countries. After widespread campaigning, the United States added its support in May. Yet, while the European parliament also backs the proposal, the European Union does not, in part due to continued opposition from Germany, which is home to a substantial pharmaceutical industry.

The decreasing number of countries holding out from supporting the waiver continued to stall negotiations right up until they paused at the end of July. This is even though the waiver is only being put forward as a temporary measure until the pandemic is under control.

Leena Menghaney, the head of Médecins Sans Frontières Access Campaign in South Asia told IPS that the countries that proposed the waiver are asking for the right to produce their own medicines and vaccines.

“Many middle-income countries have the technical capacity to also produce Covid-19 medicines and vaccines,” said Menghaney, adding that opponents to the waiver are using arguments that ignore the technical capacity that many countries already have to produce generic medicines.

“It smacks of colonial baggage to say that you’re not ready for this,” says Menghaney. “What countries want is the right to produce these medicines and vaccines.”

This is not the first time that the strict TRIPS rules for medicines have come under the microscope.

The current intellectual property system has also added to the inequality in access to Tuberculosis medicines, contributing to the emergence of new multi-drug resistant variants that threaten to even further prolong one of the world’s most unequal epidemics.

“The intellectual property system doesn’t really distribute the outcomes of science very well. It’s not a system where people are equally able to access the outcomes of research”, said Menghaney. “Governments have been funding research, but the outcomes of research are not equitably distributed,” she added.

“Many times this research actually has its genesis in public labs, the riskiest part of research for HIV, Hepatitis C and now Covid-19 has happened in public labs.”

The strict barriers to intellectual property imposed by TRIPS have also been challenged before by South Africa when millions of people were dying because they could not afford expensive new treatments. Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS, is one of many supporters of the TRIPS waiver alongside World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom.

“We cannot repeat the painful lessons from the early years of the AIDS response, when people in wealthier countries got back to health, while millions of people in developing countries were left behind,” Byanyima has said in support of the waiver.

To date, developing countries have found that their efforts to purchase vaccines have been plagued with difficulties, unfair prices and secretive deals. Anis Chowdhury former Director of Macroeconomic Policy and Development Division of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific told IPS that even sharing of the Astra Zeneca vaccine has not proven easy even though the researchers who developed the vaccine at Oxford University promised that they would not make a profit from the vaccine while the pandemic continued.

“The issue is all these agreements are very non-transparent. And in this case, the parent company dictates almost all the conditions including who could be the distributor of this drug or vaccine, what price you charge, and to which customer,” Chowdhury told IPS.

Both South Africa and India have found themselves tied up in complicated deals meaning they have little say over who they sell vaccines they make to or where they can buy their own supplies from. So far, European countries have been able to secure lower prices for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine than many low- and middle-income countries.

While vaccine waiver negotiations have languished, global efforts to address vaccine inequality have rested on the COVAX facility, convened by the WHO. Yet, Chowdhury, who is also Professor of Economics at Western Sydney University, told IPS that “from the start, COVAX was designed to fail.”

As Chowdhury told IPS, COVAX was put forward as an alternative by rich countries “because the pharmaceutical industries refused to join” C-TAP a WHO proposal to increase knowledge sharing of Covid-19 technologies between countries on the same day it was launched back in May.

Yet, although Dr Adhanom says that 11 billion doses are needed to end the pandemic, COVAX has only managed to put together a small proportion of its modest goal of two billion doses of vaccines, and even this small pool of vaccines is yet to reach countries that need it most since rich countries – Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK – have been buying up vaccines from COVAX as well. And COVAX is unlikely to attract enough donations, as even the World Health Organization continues to struggle to attract funding in the midst of the pandemic.

As Chowdhury points out “powerful countries” have been cutting the UN’s budget “right and left for so many years.”


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