Wealthy countries block COVID-19 drugs rights waiver at WTO – but claim to support universal access at the G20

November 23, 2020: The United States, the European Union and other mainly wealthy nations gathered in Geneva on November 21, 2020, to reiterate their opposition to a proposal to waive intellectual property rules for COVID-19 drugs, according to a Reuters report, despite pressure to make an exception to improve access to these drugs for poorer countries.

China and dozens of other countries support the waiver, proposed by South Africa and India in October, saying existing intellectual property (IP) rules create barriers on access to affordable medicines and vaccines.

These same wealthy states at the online meeting of the G20 on November 22 failed to mention the WTO rules but said:

“We acknowledge the necessity of urgent short-term actions to step up the global efforts to fight the COVID-19 crisis. We will quickly work together and with stakeholders to close the financing gap in the WHO Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan. We further commit to provide immediate resources to the WHO’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation (CEPI) and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, on a voluntary basis. We call upon all countries, international organizations, the private sector, philanthropies, and individuals to contribute to these efforts”. (emphasis added)

Unless the debate changes under public pressure, the proposed waiver set to go before the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) General Council next month is likely to fail.

“If rich countries prefer profits to life, they will kill it by tying it down in technicalities.” said a delegate supporting the motion who attended the closed-door meeting.

The World Health Organization says it supports tackling barriers to access to COVID-19 medicines.

This week, more than 100 civil society organisations wrote to EU lawmakers urging them to back the WTO waiver.

French medical charity MSF’s senior legal and policy officer Yuanquiong Hu said recent positive data from COVID-19 vaccine trials by US pharmaceutical firms added to the urgency of the waiver proposal.

“There is a hierarchical model and the poorer countries are being asked to take the leftovers,” she said.