Can Waivers Help Solve COVID-19 Vaccine Inequality?

On Monday, March 1st, The World Trade Organization General Council gathered to discuss the possibility of states and non-governmental actors to temporarily waive patents for COVID-19 vaccines. The ambition is to expedite the transfer of technology and scientific knowledge to developing countries to advance the global production of vaccines and other necessary equipment. The United Nations health agency revealed that after almost a year into the pandemic, three-quarters of the current vaccine supply has been administered by 10 countries that account for 60 percent of global economic growth. By contrast, about 130 countries and 2.5 billion people have yet to receive a single dose. World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus raises a relevant question in regards to the opposition of issuing a waiver: “If not now, when?”

Al Jazeera reports how several companies responsible for the vaccines, along with most high-income countries, have rejected the idea of a waiver during the pandemic. The U.S., U.K., and members of the European Union instead argued against the WTO, claiming that waiving patents could block scientific innovation by discouraging private investment and that regulations therefore would allow drugmakers to engage in bilateral agreements with generic manufacturers. In response, 115 members of the European Commission issued a declaration urging the European Union to drop its opposition to the temporary suspension. Additionally, around 400 organizations within the U.S. have been pushing U.S. President Joe Biden to endorse the waiver, and the legal adviser for the Access Campaign for Doctors Without Borders, Yuan Qiong Hu, argued: “The biggest evidence to endorse the waiver is people that continue to die.”

The UN-assisted COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX), designed to expand the distribution of vaccines to low-income nations, has now begun sending shipments to some countries. The Ivory Coast and Ghana each received hundreds of thousands of doses last week and multiple other African countries are expecting to receive shipments soon, but the disparity between high and low-income countries remains vast.

At the core of the discussion stands a proposal submitted by South Africa and India to suspend the WTO’s agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) during the pandemic. According to Al Jazeera, the “unequal distribution of vaccines has boosted support for India and South Africa’s proposal, which now counts 100 supporters among WTO members, including 58 official sponsors.” Supporters of the plan disagree that a waiver would hamper scientific development ­­­­­and point out that vaccine developers received about $10 billion in public and non-profit funding for their vaccine applicants. As the director of the Health Justice Initiative founder, Fatima Hassan, mentioned that a waiver would not only enable the establishment of a practical framework to increase production but would send a necessary public health message.

According to Al Jazeera, “After Monday’s meeting, Okonjo-Iweala urged WTO members to work with drugmakers to license more vaccine manufacturing in developing countries.” The unequal distribution is itself a strong argument for imposing a waiver. Billions of people are still suffering from the consequences of the pandemic, and the lack of support they are receiving is a critical issue. Most importantly, nations such as the U.S., U.K., and EU members must recognize the efforts being made and show support for the waiver. 

A similar situation took place at the peak of the global HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1990s. Due to patent rules on necessary drugs, millions of people in the developing world died without access to medicine, even though it was available on the market. It took three years of struggle before South Africa managed to import cheap antiretroviral drugs by removing some patent barriers after drug makers dropped a lawsuit accusing the country of imposing on international trade agreements. In 2001, WTO nations reached a landmark agreement that allowed member states to seek compulsory licensing when faced with extreme emergencies. It meant that governments were allowed to waive Intellectual Property Rights without the license owner’s consent. However, experts still believe it is more likely that governments would work for a solution by pressuring drug companies to grant more voluntary licenses to manufacturers located in the Global South.

Ultimately, supporters and opponents to the waiver plan have been engaging in a circular discussion without reaching a breakthrough. While it may still take some time before finding a convergence between the two sides, there is hope that countries will show a willingness to address the concept of the proposal to further work towards a compromise. It is essential that the UN and WTO keep highlighting the unequal distribution and the issues of certain rules that are preventing countries from receiving help. It is critical for all high-income countries and leaderships to recognize when a reform should be imposed. 

Olivia Berntsson