SWITZERLAND – The World Trade Organization’s (WTO) member countries have reached a limited agreement to relax intellectual property protections on coronavirus vaccines after two years of bruising negotiations, with the goal of increasing supply for poorer countries.

The legislation would make it easier for manufacturers in developing countries to circumvent vaccine patents and export them for sale in other low-income countries.

The unprecedented agreement, sealed by all 164 WTO members after late-night overtime talks, will grant developing countries the right to produce Covid vaccines for five years “without the consent of the right holder.”

Timing is a significant limitation. The major pharmaceutical companies that invented Covid-19 vaccines are now far outpacing demand.

The agreement does not apply to coronavirus tests and treatments, which experts say are the more pressing priorities at this stage of the pandemic and could see global supply increase significantly as intellectual property protections are relaxed.

Experts have noted that the agreement, which is the result of an ambitious patent waiver proposal nearly two years ago, is far too late and far too limited in scope to have a meaningful impact on global vaccine supply.

The primary barriers to lower-income countries’ vaccination rates are distribution and getting shots in arms, rather than supply itself.

The agreement does not apply to coronavirus tests and treatments, which experts say are the more pressing priorities at this stage of the pandemic and could see global supply increase significantly as intellectual property protections are relaxed.

In October 2020, with wealthy countries locking up orders for the Covid vaccines that would soon become available, India and South Africa drafted an ambitious waiver of intellectual property rights under the WTO’s agreement on trade-related intellectual property rights, known as TRIPS.

A year ago, with poorer countries still facing severe vaccine shortages, the Biden administration came out in support of the proposal.

The move was a significant departure from decades of US – led opposition to easing intellectual property rules on medicines.


James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International a nonprofit focused on intellectual property in medicine said it was “a limited and disappointing outcome.”

The fact that the exception is limited to vaccines, has a five-year duration and does not address WTO rules on trade secrets makes it particularly unlikely to provide expanded access to Covid-19 counter-measures,” he said in a statement.

The pressure this week was to reach consensus in order to make multilateralism look like it works, which seems to have been the main justification for producing this decision.”

Max Lawson, co-chair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance and Oxfam’s head of inequality, singled out Switzerland, Britain and the European Union for “blocking anything that resembles a meaningful intellectual property waiver.”

The conduct of rich countries at the WTO has been utterly shameful,” he said. The agreement also disappointed the pharmaceutical lobby group IFPMA, which warned that “dismantling” patent protections would strangle innovation.

And while vaccine doses were scarce early in the pandemic, that is no longer the case. Nearly 14 billion doses had been produced worldwide as of mid-June, according to research group Airfinity.

As supply soars, some vaccine makers like the giant Serum Institute of India have stopped producing doses due to falling demand.

Yet many developing countries still lag far behind the rest of the world in vaccination rates.

While 60 percent of the world’s population has received two vaccine doses, that number falls to 17 percent in Libya, 8 percent in Nigeria and less than 5 percent in Cameroon, according to the World Health Organization.

Pharma groups have said that the logistics involved in distributing vaccines in developing countries is a far bigger hurdle to rolling out doses.

But experts said the proposal was weakened significantly over months of negotiations. They said they did not expect the final agreement to encourage manufacturers in developing countries to start producing Covid vaccines, in part because it does not address the trade secrets and manufacturing know-how that many producers would need.

The drug industry, which argues that robust intellectual property protections are crucial to innovation, has fiercely opposed the effort under the WTO throughout the negotiations.

“The single biggest factor affecting vaccine scarcity is not intellectual property, but trade. This has not been fully addressed by the World Trade Organization,” said IFPMA’s director general Thomas Cueni.

The industry’s main lobbying group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, sharply criticized agreement. Stephen J. Ubl, the group’s head, called it one in a series of “political stunts” and said it “won’t help protect people against the virus.”

“It may read to some people like it’s some magical new flexibility,” he said. But the agreement is limited to “taking the most awkward way to do exports and making it less awkward,” he said.

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