WTO dithers on TRIPS waiver even as global gaps in COVID-19 vaccine access grow

06 February 2021
Laboratory technicians prepare vials of the Sinovac Biotech coronavirus vaccine at the Butantan Institute in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Friday, 15 January 2021.
Jonne Roriz / Bloomberg / Getty Images
Laboratory technicians prepare vials of the Sinovac Biotech coronavirus vaccine at the Butantan Institute in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Friday, 15 January 2021.
Jonne Roriz / Bloomberg / Getty Images

As countries around the world have started vaccinating their residents against COVID-19, the unequal distribution of vaccines between rich and poor countries has become obvious and alarming. Since October, the World Trade Organisation has been debating a proposal initiated by India and South Africa to waive obligations under the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights or TRIPS agreement to make COVID-19 technologies, including vaccines, quickly accessible to across the world. During the TRIPS council meeting on 4 February, developed countries continued to oppose movement on the proposal. 

Only ten countries account for 95 percent of the 40 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered globally. The World Health Organisation has been advocating for vaccinating at least 70 percent of the global population to stall the pandemic. We have estimated that the current vaccine requirement is around 10.92 billion doses, that is, two doses per person. Current availability lags far behind at 7.2 billion doses. In this scenario, a handful of countries have already hoarded a majority of the available doses. High-income countries with only 16 percent of the world’s population have booked 60 percent of available doses by making commercial deals with manufacturers. The share of vaccines bought by lower middle-income countries is just about six percent and that of low-income countries is about four percent. If the current trend continues, poor nations can achieve mass vaccination only by 2024. 

The outrageous mismatch between the supply and demand and the intensification of manufacturing in the hands of a few private manufacturers, presents an urgent need to enhance the COVID-19 vaccine availability using the existing production facilities of diverse vaccine manufactures across the globe to ensure equitable access.

Vaccine manufactures have failed to meet their existing commitments so far. The Pfizer-BioNTech partnership cited upgradation of a manufacturing plant when it reduced the supply of its vaccine doses to the European Union. Astra-Zeneca scaled back supply to the EU from 80 million doses to 31 million during the first quarter of 2021. This supply shortage has decelerated the vaccination drive in the EU. The desperation for COVID-19 vaccines within and outside the EU was evident in the European Commission’s move to imposed export restrictions. 

COVAX, the WHO’s global vaccine programme to ensue equitable distribution, is struggling to keep its promise of supplying two billion doses by the end of 2021. COVAX aims to provide low-income countries to enough doses to vaccinate 20 percent of their populations at no cost. These countries have to figure out how to vaccinate nearly 80 percent of their people. As a result, the African Union has entered a bilateral contract with vaccine manufactures to secure 270 million doses. When countries enter into bilateral deals they may be subjected to differential pricing. South Africa had to buy the COVID-19 vaccine from the Serum Institute of India at $5.25 per dose—almost 2.5 times higher than what Astra-Zeneca charged most European countries. 

KM Gopakumar legal advisor for the Third World Network.

Chaitali Rao lawyer specialising in patents, access to medicines and health issues.

Keywords: Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights World trade organisation World Health Organisation Covid-19 vaccine European Union AstraZeneca Pfizer BioNTech