World Trade Organization Deal to make COVID-19 vaccines accessible to low-income countries remains hangs in the balance

The fate of a contentious attempt to make COVID-19 vaccines more available to the Global South remained unclear, as deliberations at a World Trade Organization meeting in Geneva continued into the early hours on Friday.

As originally proposed, a waiver would have given vaccine-makers the freedom to churn out doses of proven COVID-19 vaccines without risk of being sued by the pharmaceutical giants who had invented them. The move was put forward by India and South Africa more than two years ago. They argued it would ease the supply bottlenecks that had meant that the life-saving shots and drugs arrived late to low-income countries, if at all.

At the first gathering of world trade ministers in almost five years, one of the most anticipated debates involved what’s known as the TRIPS waiver, a short form for a temporary relaxing of some of the trade and copyright rules known as the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.

While the World Trade Organization released a suite of proposed trade agreements early Friday Geneva time that its head called “unprecedented,” covering everything from food to health, a decision on vaccines was not among them.

While a spokesperson for Canada’s Minister of International confirmed that a “tentative” agreement had been reached, vaccines weren’t included in the proposal released, according to Reuters.

Concerns had swirled in recent weeks and months that the vaccine proposal had been watered down to the point were the original intent had been lost. This week, Western diplomats accused India’s delegation of being particularly resistant to an agreement.

The proposal was controversial from the beginning, as advocates for intellectual property argued that the protections were a badly-needed incentive for drug-makers to rush to help during a pandemic.

That tension was seemingly captured in a tweet from simon manleythe UK’s ambassador to the WTO, earlier in the day in which he said his country was ready to sign on, because the proposed text “upholds the IP framework so vital for innovation and investment.”

Worth noting is that by the time the meetings in Geneva rolled around, the original proposal had been replaced by a compromise previously hashed out by four major players in vaccine manufacturing referred to as the Quad: the European Union, India, South Africa and the United States.

When first unveiled, the World Trade Organization described the Quad’s proposal as “identifying practical ways of clarifying, streamlining and simplifying” the existing ways in which governments could get around patents. The WTO’s director-general called it a “major step forward.”

By moving away from a blanket waiver on intellectual property, it watered down the original idea to the point of being of little use, some global health advocates argued. Canada came under fire at home for refusing to take a position.

Last week, an open letter signed by a handful of high-profile Canadians and global health experts, including Stephen Lewis and Naomi Klein, called on Canada to reject the “deeply flawed” compromise.

“Tinkering around the edges of this model is not sufficient,” the letter read. “Trade experts tell us that this counter-proposal would do little to increase access.”

Those concerns were echoed by Medicines Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) with Candice Sehoma, an adviser for South Africa, calling the draft text “problematic” in a release sent out at the beginning of the week.”

The draft is “substantively different from the real waiver proposal we have been supporting. What we’re seeing so far is some limited changes, not real progress,” the release said.

According to Reuters, delegates said deals on intellectual property and fisheries, the other major outstanding issue, may yet be added at the final meeting, set to happen later on Friday.

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