15 February, 2024: After more than a year and a half of negotiations on extending the June 2022 decision on for a partial waiver on some aspects of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has formally announced that it is dropping discussions. This comes as a blow to countries such as India and South Africa which have been advocating for a TRIPS waiver extension to allow the production of more accessible COVID medicines.
COVID-19 Pandemic and medicine monopolies
COVID pandemic exposed how medicine monopolies delayed access to vaccines and treatments
During the COVID pandemic 2020-22, AFTINET campaigned on the issue of access to pandemic-related medicines. COVID has demonstrated the limitations of the global health system and the Intellectual WTO Property (IP) regime that shaped the global response to the pandemic. IP rules gave a few pharmaceutical companies twenty-year patents on new COVID vaccines, which meant they controlled both the quantity and prices. Most vaccines were sold to high-income countries at high prices. This resulted in long delays in access to vaccines for low and low-middle income countries leading to lower vaccination rates. There was even less access to treatments when they became available.
Developing countries in October 2020 proposed a temporary waiver of WTO IP rules to share intellectual property and enable global production of more vaccines and treatments at affordable prices for low- and middle-income countries. AFTINET worked with a broad coalition of public health, union, aid and development and human rights organisations to generate public support for this proposal and to lobby the Australian government to support it. We commissioned a survey which showed that most Australian supported the temporary waiver and organised a petition with 50,000 signatures, organised rallies exposing pharmaceutical companies’ profiteering, and pressured the government and opposition parties to state publicly that they would support the waiver. However, at the WTO negotiations the government took a neutral stance, trying to broker a compromise between supporters and opponents of the waiver.
The waiver proposal was delayed for over 18 months by rich countries, lobbied by pharmaceutical companies, until the peak of the pandemic was over. The June 2022 WTO Ministerial decision on the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) was a watered-down version of the waiver originally proposed which had little effect and applied only to vaccines. A decision on COVID treatments and other pandemic-related products was postponed and has still not been made.
In early 2022, for every dose of mRNA vaccine delivered to low-income countries, 56 were delivered to rich countries. Vaccination rates in low-income countries were less than 20% by January 2022, and were still only at 32% in September 2023. These delays contributed to the estimated 17.2 million deaths due to COVID, the majority of which were in low- and low-middle income countries.
The World Health Organisation is now negotiating a Pandemic Agreement to apply to future pandemics, which is intended to learn from the mistakes of the COVID pandemic. AFTINET is lobbying the Australian government to support temporary waivers on monopolies and other actions to share intellectual property and technology for all pandemic-related products, to ensure more equitable access for low- and middle-income countries. See our submission below.
- AFTINET submission to the Department of Health and Aged Care on Preparing for, and responding to, future pandemics and other international health emergencies (September 2023)
- Conversation Article: Why the WTO TRIPS Council must extend patents waiver to COVID-19 tests and treatments (December 2022)
- Video: Nurse protests COVID-19 monopolies by applauding pharma CEOs at Davos (May 2022)
- Open letter: 300 civil society organisations to South African and Indian leaders on COVID medicine monopolies (April 2022)
- Oxfam report: Pandemic of Greed (March 2022)
- Guardian Article: Trade rules have thwarted global efforts to fight Covid – the WTO must waive monopolies on vaccines, treatments and tests (February 2022)
- Open Letter to WTO: Access to vaccines, tests and treatments must not be delayed (February 2022)
- MSF report on COVAX scheme (January 2022)
- Civil society open letter to reach an urgent decision to waive monopolies on vaccine (December 2021)
Updated September 2023.
13 February, 2024: The UK is fighting hard to include additional protections for patents on medicines in a nearly completed trade agreement with India, “tighten[ing] the screws” on India’s generic medicines production which is a crucial source of cheap, accessible medicines across the globe.
10 February, 2024: A policy brief by Rachel Thrasher from Boston University asserts that the upcoming World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ministerial Conference (MC13) is a crucial window for WTO members to act to increase access to medicines by extending the Waiver to the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
31 January, 2024: In recent Pandemic Agreement negotiations at the World Health Organisation (WHO), the US has rejected proposals to loosen intellectual property rules in the event of a future health emergency. These rules prevent developing countries from quickly making affordable versions of vaccines and other medicines in a future pandemic.
29 January, 2024: At the end of last year, the Third World Network (TWN) reported that the EU circulated a proposal on access and benefit-sharing provisions within the Pandemic Agreement which threatened to undermine its effectiveness and equity.
10 January, 2023: At the end of last year, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation, cautioned against undermining intellectual property rules. His comments, made at a press briefing in Geneva, were significant considering the ongoing, deadlocked discussions at the World Trade Organisation on whether to extend a temporary waiver of some intellectual property rules for COVID.
8 January, 2024: Politico reports that EU countries have discarded at least 215 million COVID vaccine doses, an average of 0.7 doses per person, costing the EU over €4 billion and demonstrating the extent to which EU countries unnecessarily hoarded vaccines during the pandemic.
14 December 2023: WHO negotiations resumed in early December to discuss the Pandemic Agreement. There have been reports that the US and EU have exerted pressure to influence negotiations, namely to remove a lead Africa Group negotiator known for strongly supporting equity provisions.
12 December, 2023: Several nations, including India and South Africa, have requested that World Trade Organisation (WTO) members expand the WTO June 2022 decision to change some rules on COVID vaccines to include COVID treatments and tests, saying the risks of COVID remain urgent.
21 November, 2023: Last week Director General of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, encouraged developing countries to put in place “effective mechanisms in their domestic laws” that allow them to use flexibilities in the Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) Agreement in health emergencies.