UK implored to back COVID-19 IP waiver at WTO


Muireann Bolger

UK implored to back COVID-19 IP waiver at WTO

EQroy /

The UK has been urged to back a proposed IP waiver related to COVID-19 treatments before the World Trade Organisation (WTO) by business leaders, academics, economists and trade unions.

In the letter, issued today, March 10, the signatories asked UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to back the bid led by India and South Africa and endorsed by more than 100 other countries.

This latest development comes after the director general of the World Health Organization called for a waiver on IP rights to ensure more equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.

The signatories include Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison, Gordon Cooper, non-executive director, TCC Global, Michael Gidney, chief executive of The Fairtrade Foundation UK, Mohga Kamal-Yanni, senior policy advisor to The People’s Vaccine Alliance, and Richard Brindle, group CEO and chairman of Fidelis Insurance.

The IP waiver will be discussed at a formal session of the TRIPS Council at the WTO tomorrow, March 11, and Friday, March 12.

Vaccine inequality 'stark'

The letter stated that the world is facing a catastrophe because more than 75% of the global vaccinations that have taken place so far have been administered in just 10 countries, while around 130 countries with 2.5 billion people are yet to carry out a single dose.

“We are facing stark vaccine inequality because pharmaceutical monopolies are creating artificial scarcity and undermining equitable access.

"The new vaccines cannot be widely produced by as many manufacturers as possible because of monopolies created by patents and the guarding of technological know-how. Unless we address this, there will not be enough supplies to vaccinate the world quickly and equitably,” it said.

It suggested that the proposal to waive IP protection related to COVID-19 medical technologies would help increase the global supply of vaccines, treatments, tests and personal protective equipment by enabling more countries, companies and institutions to produce these life-saving tools.

‘No one is safe until everyone is safe’

The letter then appealed to PM Johnson directly. “You have recognised that ‘no one is safe until everyone is safe’. But the emergence of new variants of COVID-19 are already threatening the effectiveness of vaccines used in the UK and could undermine government efforts to protect the population," said the letter.

"Required changes to existing vaccines and the likelihood that regular booster vaccinations will be needed will only increase the catastrophic vaccine scarcity we face today.”

According to the signatories, unequal global access to vaccines this year is predicted to cost the global economy $9 trillion, with half of this borne by a handful of rich nations, including the UK.

This, they explained, would mean further devastation to businesses, jobs and wellbeing in the UK as well as in other parts of the world.

“It will be particularly harmful for UK businesses reliant on international supply-chains, trade and tourism. Ensuring enough vaccines can be made for everyone on the planet must be a key pillar in the UK’s economic recovery plan. Instead of vaccine scarcity, we need a people’s vaccine.”

 Vaccine advances could be ‘in vain’

The letter pointed out that the  UK government has invested £337 million ($469 million) in COVID-19 vaccine research and development, manufacturing and distribution, including £65.5 million for the vaccine produced by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford.

“These upfront commitments of public funds have facilitated rapid access to this vaccine for the British population, but we are concerned they could be in vain if we do not also ensure access to COVID-19 vaccines for other countries at the same time. Leaving COVID-19 to spread uncontrollably in other parts of the world is not only immoral, but it is deeply self-defeating,” the letter warned.

“The proposal to waive IP protection related to COVID-19 medical technologies at the WTO would overcome the legal barriers to the scale up of COVID-19 medical products by other manufacturers around the world,” the letter said.

It stressed that the proposed IP waiver would be temporary until the world’s population had achieved “herd immunity” and would only be applied to COVID-19 medical technologies. 

Concluded the letter: “We are living through an unprecedented pandemic where thousands of lives are lost daily from COVID-19, and many more from the devastating impacts on other health issues and on livelihoods. We cannot continue with business as usual.”

A UK government spokesperson said: “It is untrue to say we are blocking this. The UK continues to engage constructively in the WTO TRIPS Council."

 “The UK is one of the biggest donors to the COVAX scheme that will roll out vaccines globally, including to lower income countries, and has provided £548m to help supply at least 1.3 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses for up to 92 developing countries this year," they added.

The spokesperson concluded: “Equitable access is an integral part of the UK’s approach to vaccine development and distribution. Whilst we are committed to exploring ways in which we can improve equitable access further, we believe that the answer lies within the existing IP framework, and continue to engage constructively in discussions at the WTO TRIPS Council.”

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COVID-19, WTO, pandemic, IP, vaccines, economy, waiver proposal, vaccines, patents, rights