A man from the Indigenous Hupda people receives the Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine March 3 in São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Brazil. CNS photo/Ueslei Marcelino, Reuters

Race to help global poor in COVID vaccination hits a snag

  • March 21, 2021

A proposal aimed at getting vaccines into arms south of the equator ran up against demands for more information from rich countries, including Canada, at a Geneva meeting of the World Trade Organization committee on patent and intellectual property rights March 10 and 11.

The plan to suspend patent protections on COVID-19 vaccines and their manufacturing processes has the support of over 100 countries, but faces opposition and delays from the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada and pharmaceutical companies. The proposal from Kenya and most of the poor countries of the world would waive the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (known as TRIPS) rules until the pandemic is under control.

“Canada has not rejected the COVID-19-related TRIPS proposal,” said Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Jasmine Murat.

However, Canada has withheld its support while it asks, for the second time, for more information about how the TRIPS waiver would actually speed up vaccinations in poorer countries around the globe. The same demand was made in December.

“Canada welcomes any further information on these questions and continues to engage WTO members at this week’s TRIPS Council meeting to identify specific intellectual property-related barriers and find concrete, consensus-based solutions,” Murat wrote in an email.

Caritas Internationalis secretary general Aloysius John doesn’t believe there’s really any doubt that letting big pharma run the show behind the screen of patent protections is limiting production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines for poor countries.

“It’s the political will which is lacking,” said John.

Canada’s Caritas agency, Development and Peace, signed onto a Caritas letter strongly supporting a TRIPS waiver.

“We believe that wealthy countries have the moral, ethical and even practical responsibility to ensure and facilitate the equitable global distribution of vaccines,” said Development and Peace spokesperson Minaz Kerawala. “Doing so is essential to a just and effective recovery from the global pandemic.”

Rich countries with just 16 per cent of the world’s population have bought up 60 per cent of the available vaccine supplies, according to World Health Organization director general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“Vaccine nationalism, combined with a restrictive approach to vaccine production, is in fact more likely to prolong the pandemic,” Ghebreyesus said in February. “Which would be tantamount to medical malpractice on a global scale.”

Pope Francis has repeatedly urged equal and just distribution of vaccines. In May he urged “universal access to essential technologies that allow each infected person, in every part of the world, to receive the necessary medical treatment.”

John and the Caritas network are working closely with the Vatican and its Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development to try to influence the WTO on the issue.

“All that we can do is be the voice of the voiceless, to keep on saying you cannot get out of this alone,” John said.

With new variants of concern emerging in South Africa, Brazil and elsewhere, a delay in vaccinating poor countries may result in a constant arms race between vaccines and the virus, with the virus evolving and mutating in the unvaccinated parts of the world.

The Canadian government is not yet convinced that intellectual property rights really are barriers to getting vaccines into poor countries.

“Canada is working with other WTO members to clarify any trade-related barriers and encourage the acceleration of production and distribution of affordable, safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines and medical supplies,” Murat said.

Canada’s pharmaceutical lobby is also doubtful that a TRIPS waiver really will speed things up.

“Innovative Medicines Canada believes that there is no need to change existing international intellectual property protections at the present time. There is no compelling evidence that diluting intellectual property rights will accelerate access to COVID-19 vaccines,” Innovative Medicines Canada spokesperson Samantha Thompson wrote in an e-mail to The Catholic Register. “Doing so will only undermine confidence in what has proven to be a well-functioning intellectual property system that allows industry to partner with confidence with academia, research institutes, foundations and other private companies, significantly expediting the research and development of medicines to address the world’s many unmet medical needs.”

Caritas plans to be in attendance the next time the WTO meets to discuss the issue.

“We are targeting also the June meeting,” John said. “We need to keep the fire burning on this, bringing up all kinds of possibilities. We are also looking at it from the global health point of view.”

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