WTO TRIPS agreement explainer: why waiver makes the COVID-19 vaccine more accessible

December 1, 2020: Any COVID-19 vaccines need to be freely accessible to all countries, but this requires a waiver to some World Trade Organisation rules, argues Rachel Thrasher, a Research Fellow at Boston’s Global Development Policy Center.

There is high expectation of emergency approval of two or three COVID-19 vaccines in the next few weeks, but whenever that happens millions of people around the world will have to wait years for access. One reason is that WTO intellectual property rules put up barriers to knowledge-sharing which could otherwise produce more widespread and rapid access.

The primary role of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) is to protect intellectual property rights worldwide with 20-year monopoly patents, to address a ‘market failure’ resulting from the high cost of research and development. This is supposed to encourage innovation.

But even with its existing flexibilities of rarely-used compulsory licences and national security emergencies, the TRIPS agreement puts up barriers to access and prevents “meaningful knowledge-sharing and technology transfer” in the areas most crucial for countries managing the Covid-19 pandemic.

That’s why South Africa and India proposed in October 2020 a waiver of several provisions in the TRIPS agreement to enable urgent action to combat the pandemic. This was formally deferred to January 2021 by a group of rich nations including Australia, and blocked at an informal TRIPS Council discussion on the proposal in late November.

Thrasher explains that governments around the world have directly funded efforts to find treatments and vaccines, without which, much of this research would have been impossible. Moreover, the companies producing these products have a guaranteed global market, which would secure substantial profits even if much of the research and development money had come from their own pockets. The TRIPS Council and the countries rejecting the proposed waiver are fully aware of this fact.

Thrasher argues that even if Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca decided to grant licences to produce their vaccines through manufacturers in other parts of the world, the reach of such licences will be limited. Relying on these licences would demand that many countries negotiate with the pharma company on a drug-by-drug basis, an approach that is both time-consuming and expensive. Given also that industrialised countries have already secured much of the anticipated vaccine production, countries outside of these licensing agreements may have to wait even longer for access to the vaccine.

Thrasher concludes that a temporary TRIPS agreement waiver will not be a panacea for countries seeking access to life-saving vaccines. But the waiver will allow for meaningful knowledge-sharing and technology transfer as countries work toward building their pharmaceutical capacities – without the threat of having to defend these measures before a WTO tribunal.