Vaccinating the World: Waiving Intellectual Property Rules on COVID-19 Products

The development of multiple viable vaccines to eradicate the COVID-19 pandemic in less than a year was an incredible scientific achievement, which is now undermined by severe vaccine inequality. An inequitable vaccination program could prolong the pandemic for many years through cycles of mutation, resistance, and reinfection and will cost the global economy an estimated $9.2 trillion. Tackling this inequality will require more effective distribution of vaccines to every region combined with a faster rate of vaccination.

At the moment, speeding up vaccination is held back by what the new Director General of the WTO, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, calls “serious supply scarcity.” To address this, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala stated that the world needs additional vaccine manufacturing capacity at an affordable price.

A primary barrier to scaling up COVID-19 vaccine production is the collection of intellectual property rules relating to patents and technology transfers of key medical products. To this end, South Africa and India with the co-sponsorship of 56 other WTO Members have proposed a waiver from specific provisions of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement for the prevention, containment and treatment of COVID-19 which has the backing of the majority (around 120) of WTO Members. However, a few Members have continued to block the waiver since its proposal last year, including the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Japan and Brazil. This is despite strong public support in many of these Members’ territories for such an initiative (People’s Vaccine Alliance 2021).

A new policy brief  by Katie Gallogly-Swan, Rachel Thrasher and Özlem Ömer considers the shortcomings of the current approach to global vaccination for COVID-19, how the TRIPS waiver could overcome these challenges, and counterarguments to the waiver. It concludes that supporting the TRIPS Waiver is the best way for WTO members to advance a global vaccination program, and would be most effective with additional financing to develop regional manufacturing facilities and incentives to ensure pharmaceutical companies share patents, industrial designs, and technology.

Read the Policy Brief