Urgently waive intellectual property rules for vaccine

Right to life, public health demand extraordinary cooperation, sharing

Governments should stop blocking a temporary waiver of some global intellectual property rules that will help boost global access to COVID-19 vaccines, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today ahead of a key World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Geneva on December 10, 2020. If adopted, the waiver proposal would enable more governments to fulfil their obligations to respect the rights to life and health. The warning comes as vaccinations for COVID-19 begin in the United Kingdom, and are likely to begin in other countries in the near future.  

At the WTO meeting, governments will discuss a proposal made by India and South Africa to temporarily waive some provisions of the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement. The proposal would facilitate technology transfers so that COVID-19 medical products including vaccines could be produced quickly and affordably by manufacturers around the world. Higher-income countries have already made deals to buy up the vast majority of the world’s potential vaccine supplies for 2021, so the move would help scale up access for people in lower-income countries.

“The proposal by India and South Africa is designed to help governments grapple with the ongoing extraordinary global health crisis,” said Bruno Stagno Ugarte, deputy executive director for advocacy at Human Rights Watch. “Governments should swiftly adopt this proposal so they’re better able to make life-saving medical products, including vaccines, available and affordable for all.” 

Kenya, Eswatini, Mozambique and Pakistan have joined India and South Africa to co-sponsor the waiver proposal. The proposal was welcomed or supported by 100 countries, mostly from low- and middle-income countries. But, a small group of high-income countries and their trading partners have opposed it – including Brazil, the European Union, Canada, the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom.

Some of these governments claim that existing flexibilities in global intellectual property rules are sufficient to allow for compulsory licensing in low- and middle-income countries. But past practice shows that these tools are hard to use and that greater flexibilities are needed to meet the scale of the global challenge posed by COVID-19.

“We can only put an end to COVID-19 if governments recognize their human rights obligations and ensure that those most in need of life-saving vaccines are not left behind,” said Tamaryn Nelson, Amnesty International’s advisor on the right to health. “Agreeing to the TRIPS waiver is a crucial way for states to demonstrate that they are fully committed to immediately doing whatever is necessary to protect the right to health of billions of people, no matter where they live.”

Governments have an obligation to ensure that all countries share the benefits of scientific research and not to interfere with other countries’ ability to fulfil their obligations under the rights to health and life. These include securing access to medical products and treatments needed to respond to COVID-19, including vaccines.

All countries should support TRIPS waiver to facilitate universal and fair access to these potentially life-saving interventions, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said. All vaccine developers, including Pfizer-BioNTech, Modern and Oxford/AstraZeneca, should endorse and participate in the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Technology Access Pool, to facilitate sharing of intellectual property and know-how.

A group of United Nations human rights experts recently issued a joint statement welcoming the proposed TRIPS waiver, and highlighting that the existing TRIPS framework “may have an adverse impact on prices and availability of medicines.” They reminded governments that intellectual property rights should not be a barrier to their international human rights obligations to share the benefits of scientific research widely and in furtherance of their human rights obligations.