WTO rule change needed on COVID vaccines, treatments and equipment for global production to save lives

June 28, 2021: Professor Rachel Thrasher from Boston University Law School argues that, while the US is supporting a rule change for COVID vaccines, the US and other WTO members should also support the waiver of intellectual property rights on COVID-19 treatments and equipment.

The proposal from South Africa and India for a temporary waiver on some WTO rules for vaccines, treatments and equipment is now being negotiated at meetings of the WTO Trade-Related Intellectual Property (TRIPS) Council. Current WTO rules for 20-year monopolies mean that a few pharmaceutical companies control quantities and price for all COVID-19 vaccines. Each country has to negotiate that access, rich countries are first in line and most low income countries will not get vaccines until 2023 or later. Eleven billion doses are needed to vaccinate the global population. The waiver would enable rapid expansion of vaccine, treatment and equipment manufacturing in India, South Africa and other countries which already produce most of the world’s affordable generic medicines.

The waiver is supported by the World Health Organisation, the APEC meeting held on June 4-5, and the European Parliament. 50,000 Australians have signed petitions supporting the waiver. 

While the pandemic rages in low income countries, millions are dying and more contagious variants are developing, which will prolong the pandemic. Prof Thrasher argues that low income countries need rapid access to the best treatment and equipment options as well as vaccines.