WTO delays decision on waiver on COVID-19 drug, vaccine rights

GENEVA (Reuters) - World Trade Organization members on Thursday delayed a decision on a proposal to waive intellectual property rules for COVID-19 drugs and vaccines amid ongoing opposition from wealthy countries, a Geneva trade official said.

FILE PHOTO: A delegate arrives before a meeting at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, Switzerland, October 28, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse//File Photo

“Big Pharma” has rejected an idea proposed by India and South Africa that would grant compulsory licensing of the vaccines and drugs by overriding patent rules of WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) agreement, allowing generic or other manufactures to make the new products.

The proposal has won support from some countries at the WTO but is opposed by Western countries, including Britain, Switzerland and the United States, which have strong domestic pharmaceutical industries.

Non-governmental organisations have been pressuring rich governments to ease rules temporarily as they did during the AIDS epidemic, arguing that they create barriers to access to affordable medicines and vaccines for vulnerable people around the world. This week, the WTO received a petition signed by more than 900,000 people asking it to “ensure access to life-saving COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and equipment for everyone in the world.”

South Africa’s delegation told the WTO’s TRIPS Council on Thursday that barriers should be lifted. Many people volunteering in developing countries to participate in vaccine trials would probably be denied priority access to doses in the current situation, the Geneva trade official said.

Countries saw a common goal of providing access to safe, efficacious, affordable vaccines and medicines for all, but did not reach consensus on a waiver, the official said. Talks were set to continue in 2021, beyond a current year-end deadline.

Companies that have developed COVID-19 products argue that most developing countries lack the manufacturing capacity and technology know-how to make the new products.

“When you look at the political discussion in WTO on TRIPS, even if the patents were waived, not a single more vaccine would reach people during the pandemic. It would send a really bad signal for the future,” said Thomas Cueni, director general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, during a Tuesday panel.

“If the signal is, if we have a new pandemic, we’ll take away your patents which have enabled us to react so strongly, I do not think this would be the right thing,” he added.

“The (intellectual property), which is the blood of the private sector, is what brought a solution to this pandemic and it is not a barrier right now,” Albert Bourla, chief executive of Pfizer which has a leading COVID vaccine with BioNTech, said on Tuesday.

Worldwide, there are more than 68 million reported cases of the novel coronavirus and at least 1.5 million reported deaths here.

(This story corrects attribution in 5th para to South Africa, not Geneva trade official)

Reporting by Emma Farge and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Aurora Ellis