Biden call fuels vaccine effort for poor nations

  • May 14, 2021

After U.S. President Joe Biden’s surprise turnaround in favour of temporarily suspending patent protection for COVID-19 vaccines, Church leaders are redoubling their lobbying, hoping a World Trade Organization agreement will get vaccines into arms south of the equator.

Meanwhile Canada refuses to say whether it will support the new U.S. position at the next WTO meetings June 8-9.

At previous WTO meetings to discuss the issue, Canada asked a series of wide-ranging questions about how the TRIPS waiver would speed up vaccine production and distribution. The questions prevented the proposal from moving forward.

The Catholic Church’s largest order of religious priests issued another demand for action on vaccine patents May 10.

“Eighty-seven per cent of administered vaccines have gone to high-income or upper-middle income countries while low-income countries have received only 0.2 per cent of available vaccines,” said the global social justice and ecology secretariat of the Jesuits.

“Excessive vaccine stockpiling by wealthy countries further threatens the lives of people around the world,” said the statement signed by Jesuit conferences in Latin America, North America, Africa, Europe, India and Asia.

“We are very encouraged by (Biden’s) decision and urge all WTO member countries to support this waiver,” said Canadian Fr. Ted Penton, secretary of the office of justice and ecology for the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States.

The WTO operates by consensus and a TRIPS (Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) waiver would require agreement from all 164 member nations. Biden’s support for a TRIPS waiver leaves the United Kingdom and Switzerland in the forefront of the fight against unlocking the patents. More than 100 mostly poor nations back the proposal. So far, Canadian leaders have refused to say whether they would support the TRIPS waiver.

“I can assure you that Canada is not interfering or blocking,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a press conference May 7. “Canada is very much working to find a solution that works for everyone.”

Sixty-four Members of Parliament, including 30 Liberal backbenchers plus a senator, signed a multi-party letter to Trudeau urging him to support the waiver.

“We all benefit when every human is vaccinated and barriers to this objective must be removed wherever possible,” said the letter.

Canada’s Catholic development and aid organization believes a solution means listening to the poor countries asking for a TRIPS waiver and not the pharmaceutical industry which opposes it.

“We’re going to watch to see that Canada does indeed support a TRIPS waiver,” said Development and Peace spokesperson Minaz Kerawala.

The pharmaceutical industry lobby group Innovative Medicines Canada reacted to Biden’s new position by insisting a TRIPS waiver won’t solve the global vaccine supply problem. But a world religious leaders’ statement issued April 27 couldn’t disagree more.

The World Religious Leaders’ Call for a People’s Vaccine said “we cannot abdicate our responsibilities to our sisters and brothers by imagining that the market can be left to resolve the crisis or pretend to ourselves that we have no obligation to others in our shared humanity. … Neglect would undermine the dignity not only of those left behind but also of those who have left them behind.”

Global Affairs Canada did not answer questions about whether Canada’s position is an attempt to avoid conflict with the pharmaceutical companies.

Ottawa did announce Canada will continue to draw on vaccines from the COVAX fund, which was set up by the United Nations and World Health Organization to get vaccines to low- and middle-income countries. Canada has contributed $940 million to the COVAX facility and has a legal right to withdraw vaccines. As of April 11, COVAX had delivered 38.5 million doses, short of its 100 million goal by the end of March.  

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