Agreement reported on waiver of COVID vaccine IP protections; details forthcoming

The United States, European Union, India, and South Africa “reached a consensus on key elements of a long-sought intellectual property waiver for COVID-19 vaccines” Reuters reported, citing a document obtained from World Trade Organization (WTO) sources.

The “tentative” agreement “would apply only to patents for COVID-19 vaccines, which would be much more limited in scope than a broad proposed WTO waiver that had won backing from the United States,” according to Reuters. “The tentative agreement does not include COVID-19 treatments or tests, and the limitations would likely exclude China from any waiver.”

“We still need to see and review the full text before rendering a final judgment,” says John Murphy, Chief Policy Officer of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), in a statement. “However, the irrational fixation on weakening IP is simply a distraction from the real challenge of overcoming global vaccine hesitancy, removing actual trade barriers, and helping countries to strengthen their healthcare infrastructure so that we can get more shots in arms.”

There are still many details being worked out, and the agreement would need to be accepted by all 164 WTO members, according to reports.

Proposed in 2020, opposed widely

In October 2020, India and South Africa proposed a waiver of the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement, which protects patents and intellectual property, for “health products and technologies including diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines, medical devices, personal protective equipment, their materials or components, and their methods and means of manufacture for the prevention, treatment or containment of COVID-19.” The stated purpose of the proposal was to make it easier for all countries to start manufacturing their own COVID-19 vaccines and products rather than wait for the patent holders to produce and ship these items. The waiver was meant to address the “exceptional circumstances” of COVID-19 and to last for three years, according to the WTO.

There has been a wide range of opposition to the TRIPS waiver, including from Germany and other European countries as well as the biotech industry. Critics have noted that simply giving away the intellectual property behind the vaccines is not enough, as most countries would require a couple of years to develop the needed infrastructure for drug manufacturing, Meanwhile, the process would eliminate the incentives for the kind of innovation that made COVID-19 vaccines possible to begin with, BIO has explained.

This is a developing story.

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