“Despite its significant limitations, the Decision could still help to diversify manufacturing and improve affordable access if extended to tests and treatments.” – People’s Vaccine Alliance letter
A group of more than 160 charities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), advocacy organizations, and others sent a letter today under the banner of the People’s Vaccine Alliance to World Trade Organization (WTO) Director-General Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala imploring the WTO not to accept the proposed delay of a decision to extend waiver of IP rights under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) to therapeutics and diagnostics.
The Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) on December 6 announced support for delaying the deadline on an extension decision. The Office also said it had asked the United States International Trade Commission (USITC) “to launch an investigation into COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics and provide information on market dynamics to help inform the discussion around supply and demand, price points, the relationship between testing and treating, and production and access.”
Both IP-owner and waiver proponent groups criticized the U.S. approach, calling for a decision to be made. The People’s Vaccine Alliance dubbed the USTR announcement “pathetic” and accused the Biden administration of succumbing to pressure “from pharmaceutical company lobbyists and their henchmen in Congress.” The U.S. Chamber, on the other hand, said the administration should have opposed extension outright and accused the USTR of “kicking the can down the road.”
A deal on waiver of IP rights for COVID-19 vaccine technologies was agreed by WTO members on June 17, 2022. As part of that agreement, members said they would contemplate extending the waiver to “the production and distribution of COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics” within six months of adoption, i.e. December 17, 2022. But as negotiations heated up, members disagreed on whether a decision to merely begin discussing extension had to be made by December 17, or if a final decision to extend had to be reached by that date.
Following the U.S. announcement last week, it is expected that the decision will be delayed until 2023, since WTO decisions are made by consensus.
Today’s letter claimed that “[e]ach day of delay means more infections, more deaths, and greater difficulties for the global economic recovery.” However, IP groups and even some developing countries have repeatedly noted that there is no evidence to paint intellectual property rights as an impediment to access for either vaccines or COVID treatments.
The letter said that pharmaceutical companies have prioritized sending COVID treatments to rich nations, where they can charge high prices and make bigger profits, to the detriment of developing countries. Although the authors of the letter were vocally dissatisfied with the original waiver decision for IP rights relating to vaccine technologies, they said they believe extending the decision to diagnostics and therapeutics will still be helpful:
“Despite its significant limitations, the Decision could still help to diversify manufacturing and improve affordable access if extended to tests and treatments.This is the case because, in contrast to COVID-19 vaccines, technology transfer and a full waiver of intellectual property barriers are not necessary for generic medicine producers to make and export ample supplies of affordable treatments and tests.”
The letter urged Okonjo-Iweala to “use your influence to ensure a decision is made” to expand the waiver by the December 17 deadline.
Valentina Montanaro, Global Campaign Head of the People’s Vaccine Alliance, said that the WTO needs to take “meaningful action” following three years of relative inaction.
“Countries in the Global South should not have to wait for the United States to conduct a lengthy internal review before they can protect their populations. Another delay would be an insult to all those who have died from COVID-19 without access to effective medical tools. The WTO Director-General must step in and insist on a resolution this year.”
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