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the battle for access to vaccines in developing countries is also being played out at the WTO

For developing countries, the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic is also being played out in the arena of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Thursday, February 4, the request of South Africa and India to introduce a temporary exemption from the agreements on intellectual property rights (TRIPS) was again to be discussed in an attempt to convince the few resistant countries of the need relax the rules that protect large groups in the drug industry.

“States, rich or poor, must be able to have all the tools to come to terms with Covid-19. However, global shortages exist in all areas: vaccines, tests, protective equipment for caregivers … And the main reason for this lies in the monopoly position exercised by some companies. », Says Mustageem de Gama, the South African negotiator at the WTO, who continues: “The production of all these essential products must be opened up to other operators. The health emergency justifies leaving existing frameworks that are not suited to the scale of the crisis. “

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The two emerging countries’ request to the world trade regulator was introduced in early October. It has since encountered opposition from, among others, the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Canada, from which the main pharmaceutical groups present on the front line of the fight against the new coronavirus. The lifting of intellectual property rights is sought on patents, reproduction rights, “undisclosed information” entering into manufacturing processes and industrial design, until the pandemic is brought under control.

“We must find a solution together”

Eleven countries have officially endorsed the initiative, including Egypt, Kenya, Tunisia and Pakistan. About a hundred others are also in favor, according to Mr. de Gama. But it is not currently planned to submit the decision to a vote even if the statutes of the institution provide for it. “In exceptional circumstances” justifying going beyond the rule of consensus which usually guides the search for compromise between members. “Discussions are progressing. We must find a solution together because it is only by showing solidarity that we will overcome the pandemic ”, wants to believe the South African representative whose country has recorded 40% of contaminations in Africa.

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In the opposing camp, several arguments are put forward to oppose an end of inadmissibility. The first is to recall that the TRIPS agreement already provides for authorizing a country in a situation of major health crisis to force a pharmaceutical laboratory to grant it a compulsory license to allow the local industry to produce the drug. For their part, countries without production capacity can import products manufactured under compulsory license.

“The protection of intellectual property is essential to support innovation. Without it, the development of anti-covid vaccines would have been made much more difficult ”, defends a representative of the “no” who prefers to remain anonymous. For India and South Africa, these exemptions which suppose to be negotiated by each country with the laboratories are too cumbersome and too long to put in place to provide a response to a situation which concerns the entire planet.

The industrialized countries also believe that they are fulfilling their duty of solidarity by financing the Covax mechanism, which should provide 2 billion doses of vaccines free of charge to 92 low- and middle-income countries by the end of 2021, i.e. enough to immunize 20% of their population. population. “Covax is a good initiative, but even if it keeps its promises, it would only allow us to go part of the way”, retorts Mr. de Gama.

Remembering the HIV response

The former director of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, Carlos Lopes, is more severe: “The rich countries finance Covax but at the same time, they secure their supplies directly from the laboratories. Who can believe that in a context of global vaccine shortage, when Europe, with all the means at its disposal, is itself in difficulty, there will be something left for Africa? This is a joke. “

This new game within the WTO brings back the memory of the battle already fought by the countries of the South to obtain access to affordable treatment against HIV. “Humanity cannot repeat the mistakes of the past in the fight against HIV when millions of people in developing countries have died while awaiting treatment”, warned the director general of UNAIDS, Winnie Byanyima, by supporting the initiative of India and South Africa.

In the name of the right to health, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have decided to campaign to put pressure on Western countries. “A war effort is needed to produce enough vaccines. The rich countries must stop standing in the way. And laboratories, which have received large public subsidies to develop a vaccine, must agree to transfer their knowledge. Only Astrazeneca / Oxford has embarked on this path ”, emphasizes Bruno Stagno, advocacy manager at HRW.

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While the WTO is still awaiting the appointment of its future director general – only the Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and the South Korean Yoo Myung-Hee are still in the running – can a compromise be found? The debate seems in any case unavoidable: “In view of the extreme urgency, developed countries and China have a moral obligation to ensure global availability of vaccines. It would be unjustifiable for the response to the pandemic to be limited for the profits of a few pharmaceutical companies. Nothing justifies an unlimited monopoly “, recalls Sébastien Jean, director of the Center for Prospective Studies and International Information (Cepii) in Paris.

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