WHO draft pandemic treaty proposes monopoly waivers, and other measures for equitable access to medicines

February 8, 2023: The World Health Organization (WHO)’s first or ‘zero-draft’ for a treaty on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response would commit Member States to support temporary waivers of World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules for 20-year monopolies on pandemic related products. This would enable developing countries to scale up manufacturing of cheaper products, and increase the availability of affordable pandemic-related products.

Initial reaction from the trade justice movement is positive. Health activist Jamie Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International (KEI), described the draft as being “surprisingly strong on several topics” including intellectual property.

The draft also calls for 20 per cent of pandemic-related products – vaccines, diagnostics, personal protective equipment and therapeutics – to be allocated to the WHO, which will then ensure their equitable distribution. The WHO would donate half of these products, and sell the other half for an “accessible” price.

This follows the failure of the COVAX donation/aid project to achieve its modest targets for COVID vaccine distribution to low-income countries, where only 26 per cent have had just one dose, with even less access to treatments and tests. Pfizer, Moderna, Novavax and a few other companies sold their products at high prices to high income countries and made billions in super profits. Behind this shocking failure stands the influence of the pharmaceutical industry on governments like the US, UK and EU which have used the WTO consensus process to block developing countries’ proposals for a waiver on WTO monopoly rules for COVID-related products.

The draft says that pharmaceutical companies which receive significant public financing are to be “encouraged” to waive payments on the continued use of their technology for the production of pandemic-related products. Development of all the COVID-19 vaccines was financed by government funds, but no payments were reduced or waived.

Eleven of forty-nine clauses of the draft’s preamble deal with intellectual property rights, signalling a key battleground for advocates for public health, human rights and  trade justice .

The draft will be negotiated by the WHO’s 194 member states in an open process with public hearings through the intergovernmental negotiating body (INB). The draft is likely to face extreme pressure for change from governments influenced by the strong pharmaceutical lobby . Can the WHO process, which operates on majority voting rather than consensus decision-making, help the world’s people where the WTO process harmed them?

The next meeting of the INB is on 27 February, 2023, with the final version of the treaty expected to be tabled at the WHO’s 2024 World Health Assembly.

Dr Mike Ryan, the WHO’s executive director of health emergencies, told the WHO’s executive board on February 1, 2023, that the conditions conducive for pandemics – war, hunger, epidemics and natural disasters – were “converging with unprecedented frequency and intensity”.