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Time to suspend intellectual property protections on COVID-19 vaccines

Issued by Transparency International’s Working Group on COVID-19 Vaccines

The COVID-19 health crisis has already cost humanity countless lives. It has dramatically increased corruption in public procurement and access to healthcare and jeopardised the rule of law and civil society space in many countries.

The effective response to COVID-19 calls for exceptional global collective measures to ensure that no one is left behind. This is an ethical imperative as well as a sustainability imperative for our societies.

It is also the only way to really tackle the global threat of the pandemic, as no country and no person will be protected until all are protected.

Thanks to scientific research and innovation, COVID-19 vaccines were developed in record time and vaccination campaigns started in wealthy countries around December 2020.

Even before the authorisation of the vaccines, the pharmaceutical companies had signed multiple contracts with governments from high- and middle-income countries around the world, committing to provide billions of doses. In fact, what countries were buying was not doses but the expectations of receiving those doses. Lack of transparency and confidentiality clauses included in the contracts allowed authorities to announce that millions of citizens would quickly be immunised. Yet, in most countries, this promise remains unfulfilled.

Pharmaceutical companies had overestimated their manufacturing capacity, resulting in a dramatic shortage of available vaccines. Even wealthy countries raised complaints about unfulfilled contracts. Because of the shortage of vaccines, manufacturing countries limited or even banned vaccine exports until their local needs were satisfied. The result has been a clearly unequal access to vaccines, with devastating effects on lives and livelihoods in many countries.

As of May 2021, some 80 per cent of the vaccines produced globally have been administered in wealthy and middle-income countries. In contrast, it is estimated that some poor countries will not be massively vaccinated to reach herd immunity until 2024. In the meantime, the virus keeps on mutating and new variants appear accelerating contagions and increasing the death toll.

It is, therefore, essential to remove the legal barriers that hinder the scaling-up of the global vaccine production. Voluntary licensing of local companies by holders of property rights has proved to be insufficient. Compulsory licensing of local companies by governments without the consent of property rights’ holders is legally and politically complicated and time-consuming. The World Health Organization (WHO) created the COVID-19 Technology Action Pool (C-TAP) to foster vaccine technology and know-how sharing, but none of the companies producing vaccines have signed up.

India and South Africa have submitted a proposal to the World Trade Organization (WTO) asking for temporary waivers for the COVID-19 vaccines to scale up global vaccine production – a request supported by more than 100 countries, the WHO, the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the UN, the Committee for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the UN, as well as numerous academic and human rights organisations and experts. On 5 May, the US President Biden’s administration announced that it “believes strongly in intellectual property protections, but in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for COVID-19 vaccines.”

It is time for the WTO to agree on a temporary license waiver on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

As more than 80 former Heads of State and Government and Nobel Laurates wrote in an open letter to the US President Biden on 14 April: “A WTO waiver is a vital and necessary step to bringing an end to this pandemic. It must be combined with ensuring vaccine know-how and technology is shared openly. […] These actions would expand global manufacturing capacity, unhindered by industry monopolies that are driving the dire supply shortages blocking vaccine access.”

Transparency International supports the pledge from People’s Vaccine Alliance. As Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus said: “For the rich world, this proposed act of human solidarity to ensure that medicines and vaccines get to the whole human family simultaneously is in their own self-interest, not just an act of charity.”

Transparency International urges WTO member countries to agree on temporarily suspending intellectual property protection on COVID-19 vaccines and treatment.

The time to act is now.