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Free access to COVID-19 technology?

Our lives in 2020 were dominated by COVID-19, affecting how we live, and work, and teach our children, and the beginning of 2021 has been no different. Many of us have been following the development of the vaccines against COVID-19, in the hope that it will be those vaccines which will provide us with a route back to normal life.

In November 2020, the world watched as two novel mRNA vaccines were shown to be over 90% effective against COVID-19, closely followed by a third. In December, a number of countries including the UK began vaccinating the most ‘at risk’ groups, and a mass vaccination programme is now underway.

The UK and other developed countries were able to begin mass vaccination programmes so promptly because they had pre-purchased millions of doses of the vaccines while they were still in development. However, there is concern that the playing field is not level, and that some countries will find it much more difficult to obtain the quantities of vaccine that they need.

In early October 2020, India and South Africa asked the WTO to waive Sections 1, 4, 5 and 7 of Part II of TRIPS which cover IP rights (including designs and patents) for technology relating to the prevention, containment, and treatment of COVID-19, until widespread vaccination is in place globally and the majority of the world’s population has developed immunity. This would give all WTO members the freedom to refuse to grant or enforce IP rights relating to COVID-19 technologies for the duration of the pandemic.

This proposal was opposed by a number of countries, including Canada, the US, EU member nations and the UK. They argued that existing flexibilities allowing for compulsory licensing make the proposed waiver unnecessary. However, the South African delegation argued that the product-by-product approach of compulsory licensing is restrictive during a pandemic and would lead to delays: in order to overcome this pandemic, all countries need prompt access, in sufficient quantities and at affordable prices, to new diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines for COVID-19.

A final decision on this proposal has been deferred and is expected early this year (2021).  Whatever the decision, if the world is to return to normal within the next year or two then ensuring equitable global access to the COVID-19 vaccines should be a priority.

Author – Katherine Wright

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