Make-or-break moment as global leaders meet to discuss widening access to Covid vaccines

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is staging a series of meetings to discuss proposals put forward by India and South Africa to waive intellectual property rights on Covid-19 jabs, which prevent the sharing of manufacturing technology between different pharmaceutical companies.

The world is at a “make or break moment” in its fight against Covid-19, health campaigners have warned, as global leaders meet to discuss whether to temporarily suspend regulations that are constraining the expansion of vaccine production.

Many of the world’s vaccines are being produced by developed nations, which have already pre-ordered the vast majority of doses due to be delivered throughout 2021, leaving poorer countries short on supplies.

The new proposals, which also call for the waiving of licensing rights surrounding treatments and other Covid-related technologies, could allow lower income countries to start manufacturing vaccines which have already been shown to work, and therefore guarantee access to life-saving doses rather than being reliant on handouts from the West.

However, the request to share vaccine technology and drop intellectual property rights – which are protected by trading laws – has repeatedly been blocked by richer countries throughout the pandemic, including the UK, US and European Union. A consensus among WTO members is typically needed to pass this resolution.

As the WTO once again meets to discuss the proposals, campaigners and charities have called on these “morally repellent” governments to drop their opposition, which many fear could prolong the acute phase of the pandemic within the world’s poorest countries.

Global Justice Now, a campaign group on issues of trade, health care and justice, said that factories across the world are “lying idle” because of a patent system which is preventing them from offering assistance.

“This meeting is a make-or-break moment in the international fight against coronavirus,” director Nick Dearden told The Independent. “Will governments of wealthy countries like Britain and the USA continue to fuel a vaccine apartheid which treats the rights of most people on the planet as secondary to corporate profits?

“Or will they back South Africa and India and agree that patents should be waived and technology shared, allowing a massive expansion of manufacturing across the world?”

Research commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation found that the equitable distribution of the Covid-19 vaccines globally could prevent 61 per cent of future deaths, compared to 33 per cent if doses are monopolised by 47 of the world’s richest nations.

Yet more than 75 per cent of global vaccinations to date have been administered in just 10 countries, analysis showed, while some 130 nations – with a combined population of 2.5 billion people – have not rolled out a single jab.

The world’s richest countries have bought one billion more doses than their citizens need, according to estimates. Britain itself has amassed one of the largest vaccine stockpiles in the world, having ordered more than 400 million shots – enough to inoculate its entire population three times over.

“Remember these wealthy government have already bought the vast bulk of vaccine available this year,” Mr Dearden added. “The very least they can do now is to allow other countries to produce these life-saving medicines themselves.

“To keep blocking the reasonable and well-argued case put forward by governments in Africa, Asia and Latin America is both morally repellent and will severely delay our ability to beat this virus.”

Ahead of this week’s discussions, a coalition of more than 45 business leaders, academics and trade unionists wrote to prime minister Boris Johnson urging him to drop the UK’s opposition to the proposals, which were first submitted to the WTO in October.

The letter, whose signatories include Anthony Costello, professor of global health at University College London, and Clare Wenham, assistant professor of global health policy at LSE, said the world was “facing a catastrophe around vaccine access”.

The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations has meanwhile said that the proposals would undermine confidence in “what has proven to be a well-functioning IP system allowing industry to partner with confidence” with academic and research institutes.

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