WTO postpones decision on better access for COVID-19 vaccines– no consensus, no vote

December 14, 2020: The World Trade Organization TRIPS Council failed to act on December 10, 2020, on the proposal by South Africa and India to temporarily waive some intellectual property rights, so that Covid-19 medical products and vaccines could be more easily accessible, especially for low-income countries.

Normally decisions are made by consensus, and this time South Africa had signaled it would request a rarely used provision for a 75 per cent majority vote of member states. But there was no consensus and no vote.

Medecins sans Frontieres last week mobilised a twitter campaign on the governments which have blocked consensus so far. Civil society strongly supports the waiver.

The US and EU opposed the waiver. Australia, Canada, Chile and Mexico called for examples of where IP challenges have impeded or prevented local production or manufacturing and the timely procurement of COVID-19 diagnostics, equipment, therapeutics or vaccines, and any problems in issuing compulsory licences under Article 31 of the TRIPS Agreement in relation to COVID-19.

A WTO communiqué that summarized the session also indicated that, rather than wait for the next regularly scheduled meeting in March 2021, the issue could be revisited in January or February.

“It appears that rich country opponents have settled on a four-legged tactic of express opposition, protracted delay, backroom pressure, and obfuscation concerning the real world impact of exclusive intellectual property rights,” said Brook Baker, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law and a senior policy analyst for the Health GAP advocacy group.

“These same rich countries have secured preferential access to assured quantities of promising vaccines and monoclonal antibodies, virtually all supplies through the end of 2021. This deadly nexus of blatant rich country nationalism, industry exclusive rights, and free-range commercialism leaves the vast majority of the world’s population without access to essential COVID-19 vaccines, medicines, and diagnostics.”

As at December 4, 2020, high-income countries had reached deals with vaccine makers for 3.9 billion doses, upper middle-income countries had commitments for 1 billion doses, and lower middle-income countries reached agreement for more than 1.7 billion doses, according to data compiled by the Duke Global Health Innovation Center.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization COVAX project - with its two partner, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and Gavi the Vaccine Alliance — aims to purchase 2 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines for the highest risk populations of the world. But only US$2.1 billion of the necessary US$18 billion had been raised by November 17, 2020.

So far, the COVAX program has reserved only about 450 million doses of vaccine for 92 developing countries, enough doses to vaccinate one in 10 people in many of the poorest countries by the end of 2021, while rich countries have enough to vaccinate their entire populations nearly three times over.