23 November 2020

Poorer countries can’t wait until 2022. The WTO should suspend COVID vaccine patents now

Wealthy countries are first in line in the queue for vaccines, and the WTO is refusing to suspend patent enforcement so that poorer countries can manufacture generic versions. Most people will have to wait until 2022. This is unconscionable, say Shaz Memon and Akber Ali. India in particular is in an excellent position to roll out its own versions.

Last week, at the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS meeting, a consortium of developing nations led by India and South Africa asked the WTO to suspend patent enforcement for any COVID vaccines, as well as processes needed to manufacture them. The resolution was reportedly blocked by the US, EU and other wealthy nations.

The motivation behind the request is simple: the notion that ‘there should be no monopolies in a pandemic’. The limited supplies available of any successful vaccines for the foreseeable future support the idea that countries such as India, with significant pharmaceutical manufacturing capacities, should be able to create the vaccine supply needed by the global south without fearing repercussions.

Developed countries have publicly remained largely silent on this issue, and much of the media did not report the events at the WTO (and there was no immediate statement from the organisation). There appears to be a consensus in the industrialised world that the need to protect their own citizens’ lives and livelihoods trumps any global humanitarian impulse to do the same in the poorest corners of the globe. Similarly, pharmaceutical companies (and their shareholders) feel entitled to a return on their huge investment in research and development over the last six months.


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