WTO Patents Decision: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back for Health Equity, says AHF

In Global Advocacy, Global Featured, News, Vaccinate Our World by Julie Pascault

LOS ANGELES–(BUSINESS WIRE)–AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) expressed disappointment today with the decision of the World Trade Organization’s Ministerial Conference, which fell short of substantively addressing intellectual property rights roadblocks to COVID-19 vaccine access in developing countries. What has been heralded by some wealthy countries as a breakthrough compromise may indeed prove to be a smokescreen for lack of political will to address global health disparities after two years of fruitless talks.

“We applaud Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s tireless efforts to reach a workable compromise on the patents – she kept this vital issue at the top of WTO’s agenda, despite many competing priorities. Regrettably, what the ministers at the WTO finally decided on is a far cry from the original proposal advanced by India and South Africa, which sought to rapidly expand generic production of COVID-19 vaccines,” said AHF President Michael Weinstein. “Aside from a few, elaborately convoluted exceptions in the ministerial decision—that few countries will qualify for or risk invoking—the disparity in global health equity will remain fundamentally unchanged and beholden to pharmaceutical patent monopolies.”

Countries impacted by the lack of COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics will be hard-pressed to apply the provisions of the decision in the real world. For one, the decision failed to address the biggest challenge with producing generic vaccines – the lack of access to knowhow, such as bespoke proteins, cell cultures, and nanotechnology needed to create them.

These components are trade secrets held by drug companies, without which it is not possible to produce a new generation of highly effective biosimilar vaccines in a reasonable amount of time, even if one has a theoretical blueprint from a patent. The scope of the ministerial decision focused entirely on patents; hence technology transfers were omitted from it.

Additionally, eligible countries may only invoke provisions of the decision for five years, and they only apply to patents on vaccines, even though at this stage in the pandemic, the need for treatment is arguably becoming more important.

The decision does stipulate that in six months, WTO Members will consider expanding the policy to include diagnostics and therapeutics. The eligibility criteria themselves, however, limit the practical usefulness of the decision to developing countries, of which many lack the capacity for domestic vaccine production at scale.

Some critics of the decision have argued that it is in fact a step backward from the prevailing status quo surrounding the TRIPS flexibilities because it has introduced a slew of minute parameters and constraints that might set a precedent unfavorable to the spirit of TRIPS – namely, to give countries the right and legal protections to ignore patents during emergencies in the interest of public health.

After a drawn-out struggle at the WTO, one thing is clear – advocacy to prioritize people’s lives over corporate profits is far from over for civil society and concerned citizens around the world.

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