Failure of the UK and EU countries to agree to TRIPS waiver costs lives and undermines credibility and future of WTO
17.5 million people have died from COVID-19 in the 20 months since WTO talks about relaxing COVID-19 intellectual property (IP) rules began – the equivalent of nearly 30,000 people a day said campaigners from Oxfam and the People’s Vaccine Alliance today ahead of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ministerial. Over half of deaths caused by COVID-19 have been in low- and lower-middle-income countries.
The IP waiver, which India and South Africa proposed in October 2020 and is backed by over 100 countries, would allow low- and middle-income countries to produce their own cheaper generic COVID-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments. However, a few countries – the UK, Switzerland, and those in the EU – have blocked WTO talks from reaching an agreement which could have saved countless lives.
Now, instead of focusing on the IP waiver, WTO negotiations are focused on a dangerous and limited alternative. Campaigners warn that the alternative proposal will not help producers in lower-income countries as it adds more hurdles preventing poorer countries from producing vaccines. In addition, it only covers vaccines, not tests or treatments, is not global in scope and does not cover all IP or technology transfer.
Anna Marriott, Oxfam’s health policy lead said: “Nearly 30,000 people around the world have died every day since South Africa and India first proposed the IP waiver back in October 2020. If the world had acted immediately then many of these people could still be alive today. Yet, the UK and EU countries have continually sought to delay and dilute any meaningful outcome at the WTO and have refused to listen to the concerns of poorer countries.
“This is outrageous hypocrisy from leaders who said vaccines should be a global public good yet have worked for 20 months to derail the very process that could have delivered that promise.
“With the world facing multiple crises on top of COVID-19, it is incomprehensible that we are still debating whether or not it’s a good idea for poorer countries to be able to produce their own vaccines, tests and treatments for this and any future pandemics.”
Currently, less than a fifth of people in African countries have been fully vaccinated. For more than a year, vaccines were not available and once supplies began, they were sporadic and too often delivered too close to expiry to be used in full. This has undermined the trust between the EU and countries in Africa, and countries’ ability to plan effective vaccine rollouts.
Despite this and the logistical challenges faced, the African continent has collectively administered 70 per cent of the doses it has received. This is higher than many European countries, such as Portugal (68 per cent), Austria (58 per cent) and Cyprus (69 per cent). These rollouts in African countries were also achieved with more limited health budgets, where per capita spending on health is on average 33 times lower than in high-income countries.
Oxfam and the People’s Vaccine Alliance warned that the deadlock at the WTO on an IP waiver risks ongoing trade negotiations and undermines the credibility of the organization, especially as the global economy is facing the prospect of a recession coupled with rising food and fuel prices.
Julia Kosgei, policy advisor at the People’s Vaccine Alliance, said: “The EU says they are listening to their African partners, but in reality, they are turning a deaf ear to their calls for a real vaccine waiver and are instead in bed with Big Pharma.
“EU countries should finally show some flexibility and good faith needed to secure a genuine IP waiver and rebuild trust with the world at this critical moment.”
Campaigners warn that the current vaccine apartheid is likely to be repeated with the next generation vaccines as well as for COVID treatments. Putting up new barriers to making vaccines could set a dangerous precedent for future pandemics, they warn.
Kosgei added: “‘Why should people in lower-income countries be forced to face today’s COVID-19 variants with yesterday’s vaccines, while rich countries once again monopolize the supply of new vaccines made to protect against new variants?
“We don’t want charity; we want solidarity, and we want our rights! We call on all governments to finally do the right thing and back the waiving of IP for COVID vaccines, tests and treatments, for this and any future pandemics”.
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Notes to editors:
- The number of deaths due to the COVID-19 pandemic is based on the central estimates from the Economist’s excess death model. South Africa and India proposed an IP waiver at the WTO on October 15, 2020. In the 597 days since the waiver was proposed (up to June 4, 2022), 17,543,563 people are estimated to have died.
- The administered percentage for Portugal, Austria and Cyprus is based on the total doses administered according to Our World in Data divided by total deliveries (minus doses that were then donated) according to the EU’s Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. The African CDC reports that 70.4 per cent of doses have been administered.
- According to the WHO’s Global Health Expenditure Database, African countries spend on average $68 US per capita on health compared to high-income countries that spend $2,239 US. This is based on Government spending and capital expenditure in 2019 using current US dollars.
- The new proposal was tabled by the WTO secretariat after discussions between the so-called Quad countries, comprised of the European Union, the United States, South Africa, and India. Only the EU has agreed to the text. It focuses only on COVID-19 vaccines and not on treatments. It includes new barriers to vaccine production, such as an impossible requirement to identify and list every patent relating to a vaccine before using flexibilities that are already in the TRIPS agreement. There are also measures to prevent low-income countries from sharing unused doses with one another.
- Oxfam’s Pandemic of Greed briefing note: over half (54 per cent) of all deaths caused by COVID-19 have been in low- and lower-middle-income countries.