Author: Tim Fernholz
Date: March 15, 2021
The wealthiest countries in the world have blocked the latest effort by poor nations to speed access to Covid-19 vaccines and treatments by temporarily lifting World Trade Organization rules protecting intellectual property.
Sponsored by South Africa and India and backed by 57 nations, the waiver proposal under discussion since last autumn would have suspended, for the duration of the pandemic, portions of the TRIPS (Trade Related Protections for Intellectual Property Rights) Agreement covering medical necessities. This would allow developing economies to begin manufacturing medical goods without waiting for—or adhering to—licensing agreements with pharmaceutical companies that own the underlying intellectual property for medicines and vaccines.
Opposing the proposal last week were the US, the EU, Canada, and UK, whose representatives say they are concerned that freeing intellectual property, even temporarily, could reduce the incentives for corporate research. They also question whether developing nations will be able to begin production soon enough for the waivers to impact the spread of the virus.
“We have seen governments locking down and entire economies sequestering people in their homes,” Mustaqeem De Gama, a South African diplomat who is one of the country’s WTO representatives, said in February. “What is the problem with intellectual property rights? Why are intellectual property rights so special, given the fact that a lot of the innovation that we see being used today came from government funding.”
In the end, rich nations will sacrifice something one way or the other. Katie Gallogly-Swan, a researcher who works with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, estimated that the costs of vaccine inequality to the global economy could reach $9 trillion. And we know that the pandemic will not be truly defeated anywhere until it is eradicated everywhere.