As a major World Trade Organization meeting continued on Tuesday, a top Mexican official called out rich governments for obstructing a pathway to waive patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments “in order to put the profits of Big Pharma over people’s lives.”
“Global health is on its deathbed.”
Hugo López-Gatell, Mexico’s undersecretary of prevention and health promotion, published an opinion piece in Al Jazeera amid negotiations at the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference in Geneva, Switzerland.
“Global health is on its deathbed,” López-Gatell declared, noting that it has been almost two years since India and South Africa proposed a waiver related to the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) that “would speedily democratize Covid-19 vaccine and drug production.”
Since October 2020, a “damaging new proposal has emerged that is being pushed by the European Union and WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. This proposal would be worse than none at all,” he continued, highlighting that “it would actually add more barriers to countries seeking to produce or import generic supplies.”
As López-Gatell wrote:
The E.U. plan protects everything that is wrong with the current international health order. It allows big pharmaceutical companies to not share lifesaving technology, keeps numerous countries of the Global South in the begging queue, and pretends that borders can keep out mutations. Their proposed text is nothing more than a PR stunt intended to kill off the possibility of a genuine intellectual property waiver.
The WTO has failed us during this pandemic and refused to waive its rules that block equitable access to lifesaving technologies. Its rules have prioritized profits over people even in the midst of a pandemic. The E.U., United Kingdom, and Switzerland have blocked the appeals of lower-income country governments as they watched their people die when the vaccine technology existed to save them. Rich countries must give ground and return to a text closer to that originally proposed by South Africa and India. And the WTO must begin to act on behalf of all countries it claims to represent—not on behalf of a few rich countries in the pockets of the pharmaceutical giants.
The People’s Vaccine Alliance on Tuesday also slammed the United Kingdom and Switzerland as top officials from each nation publicly defended the draft text and the state of the talks.
“We’ve got to a text which I think is very good. I think some of the concerns early on have been alleviated,” Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the U.K.’s trade minister, told Reuters in Geneva. “We are in the final throes of one word here, one word there. I am hopeful that we will land something that is good.”
Meanwhile, Swiss Ambassador Markus Schlagenhof told reporters that “pretending that a sweeping IP waiver would solve the problem does not correspond to reality. IP is not part of the problem but part of the solution.”
Anna Marriott, policy lead at the People’s Vaccine Alliance and health policy manager at Oxfam, pointed out in a statement that “the U.K. and Switzerland have been major blockers of the TRIPS waiver for 20 months while millions have died without access to Covid-19 vaccines.”
“They have repeatedly disrupted negotiations using the amendment process to ensure that any text is difficult to use or implement,” she continued. “It would be totally false for rich countries to shift the blame for the current state of TRIPS negotiations onto anybody else.”
Echoing López-Gatell’s opinion piece, Marriott added:
The text under negotiation is no longer a TRIPS waiver in any meaningful sense. It largely restates the compulsory licensing rights that are already in the TRIPS Agreement, but adds burdensome new obligations that could make it even harder for developing countries to produce and supply vaccines.
If the U.K. and Switzerland are opposed to even this dangerously inadequate text, then they are obviously opposed to any use of TRIPS flexibilities for public health purposes or to ensure equitable access. In short, they are putting Big Pharma’s extraordinary profits over people’s access to vital medicines.
The alliance and Oxfam released a report last Thursday revealing that nearly 30,000 people have died from Covid-19 per day since India and South Africa kicked off waiver discussions in 2020.
“If the world had acted immediately,” Marriott said last week, “then many of these people could still be alive today.”