There has been growing clamour across the world for waiver of intellectual property protection for Covid-19 vaccines under TRIPS. The article suggests alternatives to achieve the desired production of vaccines without setting the precedent for a waiver.
What is the TRIPS Agreement?
The TRIPS is an international legal agreement between all the member nations of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
It establishes minimum standards for the regulation by national governments of different forms of intellectual property (IP) as applied to nationals of other WTO member nations.
Its agreement was negotiated at the end of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) between 1989 and 1990 and is administered by the WTO.
The TRIPS agreement introduced intellectual property law into the multilateral trading system for the first time and remains the most comprehensive multilateral agreement on intellectual property to date.
Waiver from TRIPS
Last October, India and South Africa moved a motion at the WTO asking its council on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) to provide a waiver on intellectual property protection for pharmaceutical patents.
Many developing countries have since supported the joint move.
While most advanced countries, home to the world’s major pharmaceutical companies, have opposed it.
Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz, along with activist Lori Wallach, penned an opinion piece making a case for such a waiver.
Alternative to waiver could be voluntary licensing arrangementsbetween pharmaceutical companies and countries that wish to make vaccine doses for their own use.
This is exactly what has occurred in India’s case, with a licensing agreement between AstraZeneca and Serum Institute of India.
The recent difficulties with this arrangement are a result of India diverting some doses intended for export (or for Covax) to its domestic vaccination drive.
But India will soon begin making other important global vaccines under similar licence arrangements, and a waiver would do nothing to speed up this process.
In the event that India needs to ramp up production more than is feasible via licences from global manufacturers, there is another alternative available,which is ‘compulsory licensing’.
Such an approach would not permit theexport of vaccine doses made under a compulsory licence.
This approach should be taken by any developing country, if, for some reason, global pharmaceutical companies are unwilling to license a life-saving vaccine for domestic manufacture and distribution in that nation.
Why TRIPS waiver won’t help
India’s limiting factors are a shortage of raw materialsandlow production capacity, neither of which would be cured with the supposed magic bullet of a WTO waiver.
Not only would a WTO waiver not do anything to address the real bottlenecks that constrain the global production and distribution of vaccines, it would also set a bad precedent.
It is true that governments, including the US and others, have significantly subsidized or incentivized in other ways the research and development activities of private pharmaceutical companies that now hold patents for major covid vaccines.
Yet, these governmentsrequired the ingenuity of private enterprise to invent these vaccines.