Vatican backs WTO rule changes to make medicines accessible to all, as decision delayed

February 25, 2021: The World Trade Organisation has again delayed the debate and decision on the proposed suspension of intellectual property trade rules from its General Council meeting on March 1-2, to the TRIPS Council on March 10-11, 2021. Meanwhile Pope Francis, who has an ambassador to the WTO, has come out is support of the suspension.

On February 23, 2020, Archbishop Ivan Jurkovič, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the WTO, told the Council of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights:

“In his Urbiet Orbi Christmas message, Pope Francis stated that vaccines, if they are ‘to illuminate and bring hope to all, need to be available to all... especially for the most vulnerable and needy of all regions of the planet’. The principles of justice, solidarity and inclusiveness must be the basis of any specific and concrete intervention in response to the pandemic. The decision of granting a waiver from the implementation, application and enforcement of Sections 1, 4, 5, and 7 of Part II of the TRIPS Agreement in relation to prevention, containment or treatment of COVID-19 would be a strong signal demonstrating real commitment and engagement and thus moving from declaration to action in favour of the entire human family”.

The Vatican statement criticised the TRIPS rules:

“The existing mechanisms for compulsory licenses under Article 31 and Article 31bis of the TRIPS Agreement contain territorial and procedural restrictions that make the practice of issuing product-by-product compulsory licenses a complex process, thus causing difficulties for collaboration among countries. TRIPS flexibilities allow limited policy space for public health, but they never were designed to address a global health crisis, such as the one we are experiencing at present. Even during ‘normal’ times, the Article 31bis mechanism, which was established to support countries with insufficient or no pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity, has been widely criticised due to its cumbersome procedures. In addition, the fact that it was used only once since its inception, in 2006, gives ample evidence of the difficulties associated with its use”.

South Africa and India made the proposal to suspend the intellectual property rules for the COVID-19 pandemic in October 2020, but the USA, European Union, Canada, Australia and some others have opposed and delayed. WTO decisions are normally made by consensus, but there is a provision for decisions by a 75 per cent majority vote, which South Africa wants to use in this case.