Philip Stevens / Nov 2021
Covid has again forced the World Trade Organization to postpone its 12th Ministerial conference. Crunch decisions on fishing subsidies, climate change and, of course, Covid-19 will be delayed.
For Covid, the key question is how to speed up vaccine roll-out in developing countries, many of which lag far behind their developed peers. This has been thrown into sharp relief by the emergence of the Omicron variant.
South Africa, India and a group of mainly developing countries were hoping this week to get WTO agreement for their proposal to temporarily suspend the intellectual property rights that underpin vaccine research and manufacturing. They hope this would free up other companies to copy proprietary vaccines owned by the likes of Pfizer and Moderna, boosting global supply.
The European Union, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and a handful of other developed countries are opposed. With the Ministerial postponed a decision will be rolled back to most likely early 2022.
But it's doubtful that waiving the WTO’s TRIPS Agreement – governing global IP rules – will achieve anything. Existing manufacturers have ramped up supply: 12bn vaccine doses are expected by December, with many more coming next year. In other words, enough to meet global demand.
Those backing the TRIPS waiver have not explained how suspending IP rights will deliver the detailed in-person training and technology transfer required to bring other companies up to speed with these complex, novel technologies.
A zero IP world would derail the dozens of vaccine-manufacturing licensing deals, throwing global supply chains into chaos. It would jeopardize the billions of dollars already being invested in upgrading manufacturing facilities and creating new ones.
Setting the anti-IP precedent at the WTO means few companies will want to invest in new vaccines when the next pandemic comes. Without the private sector, we’ll be reliant on government labs to research and mass produce vaccines in highly compressed timeframes. A scary prospect indeed.
Surely the most pressing public health issue is how to distribute vaccines to countries that need them, with logistics and last mile delivery major problems in many parts of the world.
The TRIPs waiver is more about politics than the facts on the ground. Many NGOs and countries have been trying to unravel TRIPS ever since its 1994 ratification, for a mixture of ideological and industrial reasons. The Covid pandemic provides their best chance yet.
Whatever the motivation, bypassing TRIPS would be a huge mistake. The global framework of legally-enforceable IP rules it provides has become an essential part of the global economic plumbing. IP-intensive “intangible” goods and services have come to dominate international trade over the 25 years since the Agreement’s ratification.
Developing countries have benefited from this trend by participating in “global value chains”, in which goods are designed and manufactured across multiple countries. By giving more certainty over the local protection of IP rights, TRIPS has accelerated the integration of many developing countries into the global economy. That’s brought investment, jobs and ultimately greater prosperity.
World Bank research says participation in Global Value Chains has sharply reduced poverty in those countries that have integrated most deeply into them, including Bangladesh, Mexico, Vietnam and China.
The TRIPs waiver risks unravelling this economic progress by destroying the WTO as a credible international forum for the protection of IP. If IP protection is less than rock solid, companies will not be willing to share their technologies with business partners in developing countries. Such countries will then be stuck with old, non-IP intensive sectors like agriculture, commodities and basic manufacturing – hardly the recipe for economic progress.
The irony is that IP has been the unsung hero of the pandemic, fundamental to dozens of research collaborations and manufacturing partnerships all over the world, often between competitors. These have led to the creation of multiple vaccines in record time.
Rival vaccine developers have shared proprietary compounds, platforms and technologies and joined forces with manufacturers globally to boost manufacturing capacity and put us closer to that 12 billion dose target.
These partnerships would not happen without the legal certainties around provided by TRIPS. Rip up the IP rules and the partnerships may crumble.
As the world looks beyond the pandemic, the last thing we need is a complete reshuffling of the deck implied by the WTO proposal. It’s a gamble without winners.
Instead, the WTO should focus on removing trade barriers that are preventing vaccines from getting into arms: import tariffs, export controls and cumbersome customs procedures. This is the essence of the Trade and Health Initiative before the WTO, sponsored by the European Union and 12 like-minded countries. In contrast to the proposal on IP, this initiative would make a real positive difference. The EU should hold firm in its opposition.