EU proposal for WTO vaccine rules a diversion to delay real change

MEDIA RELEASE                                                                            

June 8, 2021

“As the World Trade Organisation TRIPS Council meets today, the European Union has put forward a tiny clarification of existing WTO rules, that would not remove the obstacles and delays in those rules,” Dr Patricia Ranald, Convenor of the Australian Fair Trade & Investment Network said today.

"This is not an alternative to the South African and Indian proposal for a temporary waiver on WTO rules to share intellectual property on vaccines, treatments and equipment, but a diversion to delay discussion of the waiver,” said Dr Ranald.

Dr Ranald explained that the negotiation of the temporary waiver is supported by the US, New Zealand and over 110 countries, and by the World Health Organisation, and most recently by the 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Australia has not yet supported the waiver.

Current WTO rules give 20-year patent monopolies to pharmaceutical companies, which means that they control global access to vaccines, treatments and equipment. Each government has to negotiate both price and supply with those companies. Rich countries are first in line, but even Australia has had difficulties ensuring supply because there is not enough production of vaccines by the companies.

Low income countries are last in line, and are receiving only small numbers of donations of vaccine for groups like health workers through aid programs. Under the current system experts predict that most people in low-income countries will not receive vaccines until 2023 or later.

The temporary waiver of WTO rules to share knowledge for vaccines treatments and equipment would enable fast expansion of production on a global basis. India and South Africa are already large suppliers of generic medicines and can ramp up production if they have access to the technology. This would prevent more new mutations of the vaccine which will prolong the pandemic.

“The EU proposes only a small technical clarification to one WTO clause which would still mean that each government has to go through the process of applying to pharmaceutical companies for compulsory licenses, but could proceed if there was no agreement. Experts say this can be done under existing rules and would not be effective to prevent delays,” said Dr Ranald.

Professor Brook Baker (Northeastern University) has done a  general analysis here and paragraph by paragraph text comparison here.

“Pharmaceutical companies argue that they need monopolies even during a pandemic as an incentive to invest. This is not the case. Governments have subsidised the development of these vaccines and the pharmaceutical companies have already made tens of billions, and will continue to do so. Unless governments act now to support the waiver millions more people will die while pharma companies make more billions,” said Dr Ranald.