The WTO needs to change track if we want to fight COVID
Discussion organised by Global Dialogue in cooperation with the Global Tapestry of Alternatives, March 2, 2021
12PM New York, 5PM London, 6PM Amsterdam, 10:30PM New Delhi
(With translation in English, French, and Spanish)
According to the World Trade Organization (WTO, more than 10% of the world population has contracted COVID-19, and 2.4 million people have already died. Now that vaccines are offered on the “market”, can we be hopeful? More than 90% of the vaccines have been absorbed by North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australia. Even in these regions, poor communities, migrants and minorities are let out. States all over the world are dependent on their ability to buy and stock the high-value products of Big Pharma. One of the most important giant providers, Pfizer, expects income e of more than $15 billion USD in 2021. The cost of this ‘market-approach” to the COVID-19 crisis are enormous. One of the leading medical journals, The Lancet, has stated that “new vaccines will mean little to individuals around the world if they are unable to get vaccinated in a timely fashion”.
One obvious and relatively way out would be to release the patents and allow countries like India, Brazil, and South Africa to massively produce generic versions of the vaccines. Of course, Big Pharma is strongly opposed to what they perceive as an infringement of their ‘property rights”. The multinationals are supported by the United States and the European Union, following the “rules” imposed on world trade and commerce, including the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), defined by WTO. Even before the pandemic, TRIPS has been criticized by those who have seen the damages it inflicts on many countries.
What is to be done
Vaccines are not “merchandise” to be bought and sold to those who can afford it. We know that the aggravation of the pandemic in one region will inevitably affect everyone. Immunity in certain regions will lead to further disruptions. Already today, many networks and organizations have initiated campaigns to secure free and universal COVID-19 vaccines for everyone. In alphabetical order, these organisers include Amnesty International, Buko-Pharma Campaign, Global Justice Now, European Citizen’s Initiative, Médecins sans frontière, People’s Health Movement, People’s Vaccine, Public Citizen, Public Service International, Oxfam, and Third World Network. This list is not exhaustive.
In the 1990s, an international campaign led by the South African Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) forced the release of “property rights” on HIV-AIDS treatment programs. Care became available to millions of poor people world-wide through a massive production of generic medication at a fraction of the cost.
The General Council meeting of the WTO is happening on March 1-2. Instead of a comprehensive policy to face the COVID-19 crisis, it is proposing, along with the G7, to boost funds designed to help poorer nations. This so-called COVAX initiative has promised to cover about 20 % of the needs in the global south. This is no substitute. It guarantees huge profits for Big Pharma, which have already benefitted from huge amounts of public funding for their research, without covering the cost of universal vaccination and without ensuring the levels of production that are urgently required. A more concrete, legal and just option is to allow all countries to choose not to grant and not to enforce enforce patents and other intellectual property rights related to COVID-19 drugs, vaccines, diagnostics and technologies for the duration of the pandemic, until global herd immunity is achieved. We shouldn’t forget that the WTO can, according to its constitution, derogate from TRIPS in case of emergencies — such as pandemics.
India and South Africa have made a joint submission to the WTO seeking a waiver from certain provisions of TRIPS (patents, trade secrets, copyright and industrial designs) in relation to the containment, prevention and treatment of COVID-19. This proposal is now co-sponsored by Bolivia, Egypt, Eswatini, India, Kenya, Mozambique, Mongolia, Pakistan, South Africa, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. Moreover, it has been endorsed by WHO and UNAIDS
The discussion will be chaired by Edgardo Lander (Venezuela) and resourced by:
- Fatima Hassan (Health Justice Initiative in South Africa)
- Vittorio Agnoletto (Right 2 Care – No profit of pandemic European campaign)
- Amir Khadir (medical doctor specialized on infectious diseases and former member of the Quebec national assembly representing Québec solidaire)
- Specialists to be confirmed from Brazil and India