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LIVES VS PROFITS

World Trade Organisation urged to scrap ‘limiting’ TRIPS waiver

World Trade Organisation urged to scrap ‘limiting’ TRIPS waiver
Activists from around the world continue to rally for a TRIPS Waiver that will make life saving vaccines more accessible to everyone. (Photo: EPA-EFE/SHAWN THEW)

More than 150 civil society organisations from around the world are pushing for a ‘real’ TRIPS waiver to be adopted by the time a World Trade Organisation conference wraps up on Thursday. 

“Fix or reject.” 

This was the call on Wednesday from 150 global civil society organisations urging delegates gathered for the 12th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Geneva to scrap the current draft of the TRIPS waiver.

The wording of the draft TRIPS (Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights) waiver is seen as limiting,  watered down and as “backsliding that could set a negative precedent for access to medicines and medical tools”, the 150 civil organisations said in a letter to the WTO. 

The group includes The People’s Vaccine Alliance, SECTION27, Action Aid, Oxfam and Medecins Sans Frontieres, and are among protesters in the Swiss capital protesting against rich nations protecting the interests of big pharma and upholding corporate greed over saving the lives of the world’s most vulnerable. It also wants a firmed-up agreement without further delay. 

The civil society grouping said that by the end of the WTO conference on 16 June – extended by a day because of a lack of consensus – there should be the adoption of a “real” TRIPS waiver that addresses a temporary suspension of intellectual property rights on all essential Covid-19 medical technologies, including treatments, tests and vaccines during the on-going pandemic.

Those supporting the TRIPS waiver say it needs to be far-reaching, including allowing for generic production and export of affordable vaccines and needs to ensure that more flexible rules apply in the face of achieving more meaningful response to public health emergencies, including the Covid crisis.

Already, 20 months have passed since the TRIPS waiver was brought to the WTO table in October 2020 by India and South Africa. 

Now, after an estimated 15 million deaths worldwide from Covid, and with billions of people worldwide still not able to access vaccines easily, the process remains locked in deal-making, delays and deliberate blocks. 

Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, Oxfam’s health policy manager Anna Marriot was scathing. 

“They have never truly cared about vaccine equity. For them, the whole process seems to have been about managing their reputations while protecting the unfathomable profits of the pharmaceutical industry,” she said at the end of another round of WTO negotiations. 

“The EU, the UK and Switzerland sat on their hands while millions died. The EU then prevented the WTO from negotiating anything resembling a waiver, leading to the weak draft document we have today. 

“The US insisted that the text exclude treatments, and then sat silently in negotiations. And the UK and Switzerland have used negotiations to twist the knife to make the text even worse – a proposal that would be near impossible to implement.

“The text under negotiation is no longer a TRIPS waiver in any meaningful sense. It largely restates the compulsory licensing rights that are already in the TRIPS agreement, but adds burdensome new obligations that could make it even harder for developing countries to produce and supply vaccines,” she added.

Marriot also slammed the pharmaceutical companies that make Covid-19 vaccines at obscene profit levels – $1,000 a second – even as millions of people have died and millions more have suffered from the impact of severe illness. 

Winnie Byanyima, UN Undersecretary-General, UNAIDS executive director, and Co-Chair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance, called out the nations blocking the waiver. They include the United Kingdom, the European Union and Switzerland. 

“A handful of countries are refusing to make concessions. They are blocking a consensus among most of the world for a simple, full waiver. This is a historic mistake. It is dividing the world at a moment when we need global unity. 

“It is creating billions of losers for the gain of a handful of billionaires. It is widening inequalities – creating global pandemic haves and have-nots. And it is ‘replicating colonial-era racial hierarchies’,” she said.

Byanyima said an agreement on the TRIPS waiver by the end of the conference would set up a safety net for global public health, as the world will inevitably face future pandemics. 

She added: “Saving lives is what should drive us… cover all forms of intellectual property rules, not just narrow patent-related restrictions on exports, address tests, lifesaving treatments today, and not kicking the can down the road.”

Boane Twala, a legal researcher at Section27, who was part of the civil society panel in Geneva, said: “It is absurd that the compromised text being discussed at the WTO Ministerial Decision fails the people who need an effective TRIPS waiver during this pandemic. 

“This ineffective text will only succeed in perpetuating the infringement on people’s socioeconomic rights and the dependence of low- and middle-countries on a system not meant to serve them.”

Twala said Africa has fewer than 20 billion people vaccinated, putting the continent’s population at significant risk of severe illness and death, even as the course of the pandemic is uncertain. 

She said afterwards to Maverick Citizen that the implications of not reaching a decisive, positive outcome by the end of Thursday is a step backwards for equitable access to lifesaving healthcare, and sets a tone that impacts the push for domestic reform, too.

“If we don’t get a decent outcome at the end of the conference, then it’s a perpetuation of the status quo. 

“It’s the same on a domestic level; without reform we have a situation of people not being able to access medicine because of a lack of substantive examination of patents. 

“It has economic implications, including on labour and other things that contribute to growing the economy,” Twala said. DM

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