In October 2020, India and South Africa made a joint proposal to temporarily waive certain obligations under the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) until the COVID-19 emergency is over. Since that proposal was submitted some six months ago Canada, along with a handful of other wealthy nations, has continually obstructed this waiver at subsequent WTO TRIPS Council meetings. If the joint proposal had been acted on earlier India could have ramped up its domestic vaccination production by now. Instead, India currently finds itself with stratospheric infection rates that are collapsing medical systems and leaving families with the horror of loved ones dying unattended. WTO Council also please note - Africa could be next.
The passage of this waiver would mean WTO member states would not have to grant or enforce patents and other intellectual property rights covering COVID-19 drugs, vaccines, diagnostics, and other technologies such as masks and ventilators. The next regular WTO TRIPS Council meeting is scheduled for June 8-9, but the world, and especially India, cannot wait that long for a patent waiver proposal to be addressed and passed.
In early March 2021 some thirty Canadian organizations signed a letter calling on the federal government to support the waiver proposal (which was by then being co-sponsored by 57 WTO members) at the March 10 WTO TRIPS Council meeting. The Chair of the TRIPS Council, Ambassador Xolelwa Mlumbi-Peter (South Africa) opened that day’s deliberations on the waiver with the following warning. “The world is in desperate need of solutions. It can not be business as usual. People are dying as we speak.” Canada did not get the message.
The Director-General of the World Health Organization is calling on member states, including Canada, to support the waiver. However, as it stands now, vaccine technology and knowledge are being treated as private property by pharmaceutical corporations, despite much of this research being paid for by over $100 billions of taxpayers’ money. With communities across the world facing catastrophic scenarios such as India’s, it’s business as usual for pharmaceutical corporations. With their WTO-protected exclusive rights and monopolies, pharmaceutical companies are able to charge higher prices and inhibit the generic competition demonstrated time and again as key to bringing and keeping prices down for low- and middle-income countries.
While Canada has ordered enough doses of the available vaccines to inoculate its population many times over, some estimates say that vaccines will not become available to a fifth of the world until 2022 and beyond. Passing this temporary waiver proposal at the WTO would help break down barriers to scaling up the manufacture and supply of lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines across the world. Notably, a successful waiver could also serve to free up several members of Canada’s small to medium sized Bio Pharma firms to begin producing tens of millions of doses at an affordable cost to be exported poorer nations.
The COVID-19 pandemic is the most severe global health and economic crisis in generations. In Canada and around the world the virus has disproportionately impacted women, migrant and lower-wage workers, racialized and other marginalized groups. Millions of lives have already been lost to this virus. Canada must be part of the global effort to save lives—not present obstacles. We call on the Canadian government to immediately request an emergency meeting of the WTO TRIPS Council, and for Canada to vote in favour of the vaccine waiver at that meeting.
Kathy Toivanen- Chair of Amnesty International-Northumberland
Rick Arnold - Trade Group Chair - Northumberland Chapter of the Council of Canadians
Derek Blackadder - Co-Chair of the Northumberland Coalition for Social Justice
Kim Goebel - Secretary for the Northumberland Coalition Against Poverty
Contact person for this Op Ed:
Rick Arnold, 784 Packer Road, Roseneath, ON. K0K 2X0 - 905-352-2430