Experts explain how trade rules are delaying access to COVID-19 vaccines

January 13, 2021: Medicines experts Professors Ronald Labonte and Brook Baker explain in The Conversation why 100 developing country members of the World Trade Organisation’s 164 members are demanding a temporary waiver of some intellectual property rights, supported by hundreds of public health and other community organisations. This would enable more equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments by sharing knowledge and enabling manufacturing in low-income countries.

WTO rules give pharmaceutical companies a 20-year monopoly on new medicines, resulting in higher prices which low-income countries cannot afford. High-income countries have already made agreements with pharmaceutical companies for priority access to vaccines at prices that low-income countries cannot afford, and the World Health Organisation fund to support low-income countries is inadequate. Without urgent action, there will be many more deaths as these countries wait for access to vaccines.

There are some flexibilities in WTO rules to enable more affordable access, but these are complex and difficult to use. The temporary waiver could address this problem. WTO decisions are usually made by consensus and can be easily blocked, but developing countries are asking for a vote on this issue.

Global pharmaceutical companies have influenced high income countries like the US, the EU and Australia to oppose the waiver, which has twice been postponed, but will be discussed again at WTO meetings this month, January 2021. Baker and Labonte are urging activists to pressure their governments to support the waiver.