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The fight over vaccine IP at the WTO

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As the world struggled to deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, it had very little hope for a vaccine since vaccine development typically involves a long, complex process. Fortunately, to the world’s relief, viable vaccines were available much sooner than expected.

Although vaccine approvals were good news, a new problem arose: access to vaccines. Wealthy nations were able to fund and produce vaccines, while the poorer countries could not do so. Not only were rich nations able to launch vaccine drives, but they also negotiated massive bilateral deals with vaccine manufacturers for advance orders, leaving little for others.

Thus, in October 2020, India and South Africa asked the World Trade Organization (WTO) to temporarily suspend intellectual property rights in order to make COVID-19 vaccines and other new technologies more available to the rest of the world. But the wealthier nations like Norway, Canada, the US, and the UK, rejected such requests, stating that the IP system was necessary to incentivize new vaccine and treatment inventions. According to the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA), “diluting national and international IP frameworks during this pandemic is counterproductive… IP enables research and development and ensures that the next generation of inventors and investors will remain engaged.”

The World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) council has decided to step in to handle the matter. But since the WTO is a consensus organization meaning every member must agree to a proposal for it to pass, finding common ground on the waiver issue is proving difficult. Thus, the consensus is still far off as citizens of the poorer nations continue to die from the lack of access. According to Okonjo-Iweala, vaccine scarcity means that 75 countries are moving forward with vaccination while 115 countries continue to wait.

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As a compromise, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has put forward a proposal, suggesting vaccine manufacturers take more action to increase production in countries suffering from vaccine shortages. The Director-General also noted that issues like the scarcity of raw materials, shortage of qualified and experienced personnel, supply chain problems linked to export restrictions, and excessive bureaucracy were hampering vaccine production. This means the WTO’s role as a trade facilitator is now more relevant than ever to reduce such constraints to speed up worldwide vaccine distribution.

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