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COVID-19 Vaccine Access vs. WTO Trade Protections for Pharma

By Mariana Lopez

Disponible en Espanol aqui

U.S. trade policies have made it difficult for patients to access the medicines they need for far too long. The Trump administration has only exacerbated this problem.

Last week, the United States joined several other countries to block a temporary waiver of World Trade Organization (WTO) rules that require all WTO signatory countries to guarantee pharmaceutical firms expansive monopoly protections for medicines and medical technologies. These WTO terms could create legal barriers and undermine efforts to produce enough affordable doses of an eventual COVID-19 vaccine and other medicines and medical equipment necessary to end the COVID-19 epidemic and save lives worldwide.

While Republican and Democratic administrations alike have prioritized Big Pharma’s interests in trade pacts and policies, this latest development comes in an entirely unprecedented context: More than 1.1 million people have died from COVID-19 in the past ten months and many more will absent widespread access to vaccines, treatments and life-saving medical equipment.

Public Citizen was among 400-plus of civil society groups worldwide to support India and South Africa’s proposed waiver to sections of the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) agreement that guarantee pharmaceutical firms expansive monopoly protections

Dozens of WTO member countries agreed, arguing that the waiver would help countries disproportionately affected by COVID-19, especially those with limited manufacturing capacity to supply their populations with vaccines and other medicines, personal protective equipment, ventilators, and other pandemic-related medical goods.

The pandemic has revealed the flaws in the hyperglobalized system of production that corporate-backed trade policies and intellectual property barriers have created. In addition to access to critical medicines and medical supplies being undermined by trade-pact monopoly protections for drug and medical device manufacturers, long, thin supply chains mean production problems in one nation quickly translate into shortages worldwide of medicines or chemicals needed to make medicines and components of ventilators and other medical equipment. With individuals, hospitals and even entire nations, struggling to access PPE and critical medical goods during this time, the temporary waiver that India and South Africa proposed would help ease affordable access and address growing inequities within and between nations.

According to a Geneva-based trade official, India tried to persuade the United States and others to “put people’s lives before anything else.” Trump administration officials at the WTO didn’t see it that way.

The U.S. government’s position was: “Weakening IP [intellectual property] protection and enforcement would be counterproductive to our global fight against Covid.” This despite numerous studies showing that extending IP exclusivities for pharmaceutical companies has led to higher prices for medicines, not to greater investment in innovation or development of affordable treatments and vaccines.

Public Citizen estimates that taxpayers have contributed at least $70.5 million to develop Gilead’s Remdesivir, an experimental COVID-19 treatment. Meanwhile, according to Doctors Without Borders, Gilead has signed non-transparent deals with several handpicked generic companies, excluding much of the world’s population from access to the drug. Additionally, not one pharmaceutical company has opted into the voluntary program, CTAP, created by the World Health Organization, which encourages global sharing of IP, data and technology to increase access to COVID-19 treatments. “These recent actions by pharmaceutical corporations show that relying on their exclusive rights and limited voluntary actions is not the solution in a global pandemic,” said Doctors Without Borders

The battle over a temporary WTO waiver continues, with the issue expected to resurface at a WTO meeting in early 2021. As Public Citizen’s Burcu Kilic noted in a recent The Guardian op-ed, there is a strong case for suspending pharmaceutical monopoly powers during the pandemic. Simon Lester, of the libertarian CATO Institute think tank, also supports the waiver to remove obstacles so that “all governments can and will take certain measures to protect the public health of their citizens.”

U.S. opposition to waiving the WTO protections for Big Pharma is not the first time the Trump administration has prioritized pharmaceutical corporations’ interests over public health. In 2018, President Donald Trump signed a trade agreement with Mexico and Canada that included giveaways to pharmaceutical companies that would have exported pharma-friendly U.S. medicine policies to Mexico and Canada and locked them in here. But for the efforts of consumer, labor and faith groups and Democratic members of Congress, the new North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would have established an additional barrier to fighting for accessible and affordable medicines.

The rapid development and equitable distribution of lifesaving vaccines, treatments and medical equipment is not a partisan nor Global North versus Global South dispute. Amidst a global pandemic, it is a human imperative.

Please tell your member of Congress to take a stand here.