Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Vaccine equity and the intellectual property wars

  • 23 March 2021
  The COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility) scheme, touted as a levelling measure against inequalities in vaccine access, is looking increasingly faulty. Co-led by Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovations (CEPI) and the World Health Organization (WHO), the aim is to supply 2 billion doses by the end of 2021.

At the end of February, over 100 countries had received vaccines, a statistic made less impressive by the fact that two countries had received more than half of the 210 million doses. Countries such as South Africa have had to pay double the price for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for fewer doses than it needs facing what UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima calls ‘a vaccine landscape of depleted supply where it is purchasing power, not suffering, that will secure the few remaining doses.’

Wealthier countries are keeping their options numerous and open. Bruce Aylward, WHO senior adviser, has made the point that ‘some countries are still pursuing deals that will compromise the COVAX supply.’ This was a source of much worry for WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. ‘Our world will not recover fast enough without vaccine equity, this is clear.’

One suggested mechanism to assist in achieving vaccine equity lies in the field of intellectual property rights.

In October 2020, India and South Africa formulated a proposal waiving ‘certain provisions of the TRIPS [Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights] agreement for the prevention, containment and treatment of COVID-19.’ The waiver would apply to WTO members, enabling them to not apply or enforce certain provisions under Part II of the TRIPS Agreement, specifically section 1 (copyrights and related rights), 4 (industrial design), 5 (patents), and 7 (protection of undisclosed information). The General Council would agree on the duration of the waiver, at the very least maintaining it till widespread global vaccination had taken place, with the majority of the world’s population rendered immune.

In discussions held by WTO members at the TRIPS Council over 15-16 October last year, the lines of opposition firmed. They looked all too familiar. High-income, wealthier countries (Australia, Brazil, Canada, EU, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, United Kingdom and the United States) were either formally opposed to the measure, or not in support of it.

The opposition by wealthier states against any waiver lies in the merits of having an IP system. Having such protections guarantees enterprise and innovation. But more tellingly, officials from the high-income countries deny any link between vaccine access and