US declares support for TRIPS waiver on COVID vaccines

TRIPS waiver, intellectual property
© Sergei Babenko

The TRIPS waiver would temporarily stop an intellectual property law that stops poorer countries to manufacture the vaccine – the US now joins India and South Africa in supporting the proposal

The United States was the newest country to join those calling for the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to waive the TRIPS Agreement. Last night, Ambassador for Trade Katherine Tai released a statement on behalf of the administration which voiced support for the TRIPS waiver:

In the statement, Ms Tai explains that the pandemic created grounds for “extraordinary measures” in legal terms.

The US, a nation with close connections to pharmaceutical giants, supporting the waiver could be a catalyst to countries in the European Union who remain opposed.

Why is there an international struggle over intellectual property?

The original idea to waive this limitation on vaccine manufacturing was proposed by India and South Africa in October, 2020. The proposal, if passed, would have enabled both countries to create their own vaccines for domestic use.

Currently, poorer countries have limited access to affordable COVID vaccines and are legally prevented from manufacturing generic versions.

Those who do not support the TRIPS waiver argue that there are already mechanisms in the agreement for a situation like this. However, developing countries can run into expensive legal problems when using these mechanisms – which could result in costly fines, or further limitations on manufacturing capacity.

Rachel Thrasher, Research Fellow at the Global Development Policy Center in Boston, commented: “Initial predictions for vaccine rollout all over the world have proven optimistic at best and current projections suggest that many will have to wait at least three, and up to seven, years for substantial global immunity through vaccines, leaving low-income countries hopelessly behind.”

Which countries support the TRIPS waiver?

Currently, 60 WTO members are behind the proposed change in law.

The proposal has been co-sponsored by Kenya, Eswatini, Mozambique, Pakistan, Bolivia, Venezuela, Mongolia, Zimbabwe, Egypt, the African Group, the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group, and most recently Maldives, Fiji and Namibia. The US joins these countries after seven months of meetings and discussions about the growing level of hospitalisations and deaths in hard-hit countries.

Which countries oppose the TRIPS waiver?

There are a key number of richer countries standing with the pharmaceutical industry. Currently, Australia, Brazil, the EU, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, and the UK remain supportive of the intellectual property law. Canada is not voicing support for either option.

How long would the intellectual property change last?

However long it takes to vaccinate most of the world. Some countries, on their current trajectory, will be unable to begin vaccination until 2023.

The General Council of the WTO would have to agree on a specific number of years. The co-sponsors of the waiver suggest that this lasts until the majority of the world’s population is immune, with an annual review of the need for a waiver at meetings between all members.

Dr Christos Christou, Medecins San Frontieres (MSF) International President, said: “Even after one year of this pandemic, and 2.5 million deaths, we still see certain governments denying that removing monopolies on COVID-19 medical tools will help increase people’s access to needed treatments, vaccines and tests going forward.”

Chair of the TRIPS Council, Ambassador Dagfinn Sørli of Norway, said there is now reason for “some careful optimism” on the acceptance of the waiver.


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