On 2 October, India and South Africa sent a joint communication to the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Council of the World Trade Organisation, the multilateral institution formed to promote free trade between countries. The communication asked the body to recommend a waiver of major intellectual-property provisions of the TRIPS agreement for technologies to prevent, contain and treat COVID-19. The proposal was made in the middle of the global race to develop medicines and vaccines against the coronavirus.
The communication said, “It is important for WTO members to work together to ensure that intellectual property rights such as patents, industrial designs, copyright and protection of undisclosed information do not create barriers to the timely access to affordable medical products including vaccines and medicines or to scaling-up of research, development, manufacturing and supply of medical products essential to combat COVID-19.”
At the heart of the debate about access to COVID-19 related vaccines, diagnostics and medicines are the contentious provisions of the TRIPS agreement. The WTO largely functions on the assumption that free trade helps increase the wealth of the nations and is thereby one of the pathways for poverty reduction. Intellectual-property rights or IPR recognised under the TRIPS agreement include patents, trademarks, and copyrights. These provisions provide monopoly rights to “innovator” companies, thereby preventing competition. Such monopolies, when applied to health-related products such as medicines, diagnostics, medical valves or even masks hinder accessibility and affordability by denying the early entry of generic products into the market.