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Western powers block move to lift patent rules for Covid-19 vaccines

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Issue 2746
The US Chamber of Commerce warned the WTO trade bodies’ new head Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala not to “distract” herself with the proposal.
The US Chamber of Commerce warned the WTO trade body’s new head Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala not to “distract” herself with the proposal. (Pic: Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

The dominant Western powers have ganged up to prevent the World Trade Organisation (WTO) from lifting patent rules on Covid-19 vaccines.

Those blocking the move included Britain, the US and the European Union. They objected this week to a proposal to waive provisions of the Trips Agreement, a global treaty governing international property rights.

Business groups rejoiced. The US Chamber of Commerce had warned the WTO’s new director-general not to “distract” herself with the proposal.

It was the eighth discussion on the topic since it was first raised in October. To pass proposals need backing by a consensus of the WTO’s 164 members.

Oxfam’s health policy manager, Anna Marriott, slammed the decision as a “massive missed opportunity to speed up and scale up the production of lifesaving vaccines worldwide”. It would have waived “the intellectual property barriers that prevent more qualified manufacturers joining the effort”.

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“Rich countries are vaccinating at a rate of one person per second,” she said. “Yet they are siding with a handful of pharmaceutical corporations in protecting their monopolies against the needs of the majority of developing countries who are struggling to administer a single dose.”

Marriott added that the rich countries’ actions were “unforgivable while people are literally fighting for breath”. “Rich country governments continue to block what could be a vital breakthrough in ending this pandemic for everyone in rich and poor countries alike,” she said.

Current models predict that there will not be enough vaccines to cover the world’s population until 2023 or even 2024.

This means millions more people could die, especially in the Global South. It also means that coronavirus will continue to mutate and spread around the world, ensuring more waves of infection globally.

Removing the patents would unleash the potential for vastly increased production of the vaccines.  

The proposal to lift the patents was co-sponsored by 57 countries in the trade group.

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The voting split largely along the lines of the WTO’s self-identified developed and developing countries. 

According to a trade official, the only developing country to oppose the waiver was Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil. The far right president put the interests of cosying up to the West and big pharmaceutical firms before the interests of ordinary Brazilians.

During the meeting, South African delegates said the issue was similar to what had happened over treatment for HIV and Aids. This killed millions of people in Africa partly due to lack of access to treatment and a refusal to lift patents.

Now again multinational pharmaceutical companies continue to prioritise profits by protecting their monopolies and driving up prices. 

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