Covid-19 vaccines: Temporary suspend intellectual property rights so all nations can afford them

Vials of Covid-19 vaccines in Lima, Peru. - Reuters

Twenty-eight organisations, including the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), and three community activists are calling for Malaysia to join other developing countries in a global effort to remove monopolies on crucial medical products in the fight against Covid-19.

A letter was sent to Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin last week as members of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) continue discussions of a proposal to temporarily suspend implementation, application and enforcement of several parts of the WTO’s intellectual property agreement for a defined period.

This move will open the door to more research and development as well as production of needed Covid-19 medical products – diagnostic kits, medicines for treatment, vaccines and also personal protective gear.

As the first vaccines are approved and rolled out for treatment, the developing world and international organisations such as the World Health Organisation are shocked to see the “vaccine nationalism” and hoarding that has swept the rich countries. While it is understandable that each government wants to protect its own citizens, a pandemic such as Covid-19 demands that the whole world work together because saving a few while the rest of the world suffers will not save anyone in the long run. Viruses, especially when they mutate to become more infectious, do not respect borders.

A major reason for shortages of crucial Covid-19 medical products is insufficient production capacity, and intellectual property rights are a big factor because of the monopolies created that limit the number of manufacturers.

Unfortunately, rich countries and the multinational pharmaceutical industry are strongly opposing the proposal first tabled by India and South Africa on Oct 2, 2020, to temporarily suspend relevant parts of the Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).

The so-called “Waiver Proposal” at the WTO is now co-sponsored by Bolivia, Egypt, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), India, Kenya, Mozambique, Pakistan, South Africa, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. Almost 100 developing countries and the poorest countries are supporting this move. There is also worldwide support from many international organisations and eminent individuals, and public pressure is growing in Canada, Europe, Japan and the United States where those governments are blocking the Waiver Proposal at the WTO.

World Health Organisation director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Jan 18, 2021, that “We now face the real danger that even as vaccines bring hope to some, they become another brick in the wall of inequality between the world’s haves and have-nots”. He gave shocking information on vaccine distribution: “More than 39 million doses of vaccine have now been administered in at least 49 higher-income countries. Just 25 doses have been given in one lowest-income country. Not 25 million; not 25 thousand; just 25.

“I need to be blunt: the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure, and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries, ” Dr Tedros said.

At the end of last month, the world watched the European Union fight for timely delivery of the vaccine that it had ordered from AstraZeneca under an “advance purchase agreement” and raise questions about shipments sent to Britain from manufacturing plants in Europe.

Delays and under-delivery of the expected doses led the EU to impose an export restriction until the end of March that requires the EU’s prior authorisation before vaccines destined for other countries can leave its territory.

There is widespread concern that companies with approved vaccines may have over-committed in signing numerous advance purchase agreements with countries that can afford to pay, and delivery delays can jeopardise vaccination programmes.

Meanwhile, the United States is catching up on its national Covid-19 response under its new president. Recognising the emergency scale of affairs, President Joe Biden has invoked the Defense Production Act of 1950 that is used in wartime to ensure sufficient supply of essential goods. This Act allows the president to require businesses to accept and prioritise contracts for materials deemed necessary for national defense, regardless of a loss incurred on business. In addition to securing its vaccine supply, the United States will tackle shortages of any equipment for frontlines and testing.

However, while prepared to take all necessary action at home, the United States is blocking the Waiver Proposal needed for a global effort.

The Malaysian government has announced that there will be multiple suppliers of vaccines – but our total dependency on imports from limited sources puts us in a very vulnerable position and a global solution must be the way forward.

The ongoing vaccine scramble and potential future conflicts over medicines that can treat Covid-19 and even personal protective equipment show the urgent need for the TRIPS Waiver to overcome the problems of shortages and to ramp up production across countries to provide the medical goods equitably to small and big countries.


President, Consumers Association of Penang (CAP)

Note: This letter was signed by 28 organisations and three individual activists, as follows: Agora Society Malaysia, Citizens’ Health Initiative, Consumers’ Association of Penang, Crisis Home, Health Equity Initiatives, Idris Association, aringan Ekologi dan Iklim, Jaringan Rakyat Tertindas/PSM, Majlis Tindakan Ekonomi Melayu, Malaysia AIDS Council, Malaysia Consumers’ Movement, Malaysian Consultative Council of Islamic Organisations, Malaysian Women's Action for Tobacco Control and Health, Monitoring Sustainability of Globalisation, Padi Rescue, Penang Forum, Persatuan Insaf Murni Malaysia, Persatuan Persaudaraan Muslim Malaysia, Positive Malaysian Treatment Access & Advocacy Group, Prostate Cancer Society Malaysia, Sahabat Alam Malaysia, Sekretariat Gagasan Darul Aman, Sekretariate Transformasi Qaryah Malaysia, Tanjung Bunga Residents Association of Penang, Teras Pengupayaan Melayu, Third World Network, Together Against Cancer, Unggas Malaysia; Isaac Tan, Jeremy Kwan & Manis Chen.

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