Brazil’s pioneering solution to vaccine shortages

Activists are calling for the lifting of patent protection for Covid-19 vaccines on November 30 in Geneva, ahead of a WTO ministerial meeting that has since been canceled. (Photo: AFP)

The World Trade Organization was due to meet last week to consider a proposal that has been dragging on for a year: a temporary pharmaceutical intellectual property waiver during the pandemic to allow poor countries to do many of the same tests, treatments and vaccines. that rich countries have had throughout the pandemic. Yet, as a stark reminder of the urgency of the problem, the WTO meeting was postponed, due to the Omicron variant, detected by scientists in South Africa (although its origin remains uncertain).

There is almost unanimous agreement that vaccinating the whole world is the only way to end the pandemic. The higher the vaccination rate, the less likely the virus will have to acquire dangerous mutations. Before quickly becoming the world’s leading variant, Delta was first detected in India, where less than 3% of the population had been vaccinated. Today Africa has the lowest vaccination rates in the world, with just 7% of Africans having been fully vaccinated.

There is a simple reason the poorest countries don’t have enough vaccines: there aren’t enough for everyone. Donations have not solved the problem, as no country has a vaccine surplus in the billions that are needed. Philanthropy, too, has failed. The Covid-19 Vaccine Global Access (Covax) facility, an international consortium that has pledged to send two billion doses to poor countries by the end of this year, has shipped only 25% of that amount.

The world does not make as many vaccines as it could. Every company in every country that has the capacity to manufacture vaccines should do so. Yet after paying Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer / BioNTech to develop their vaccines, the US and German governments are unwilling to force these companies to share their technology with manufacturers in other countries.

Unless these governments change their position, businesses will continue to exploit the lucrative monopoly power granted to them by the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (Travel), which was created when the organization was founded in 1995. According to WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the travel waiver proposal is “blocked”. Although the number of rich countries opposing it has declined, there is still enough opposition to thwart a solution.

But while the WTO dithers, Brazil has taken matters into its own hands. In April, Brazilian Senator Paulo Paim proposed a bill that would allow the country to bypass barriers erected by Trips. The legislation is based on the fact that, as commercial law scholar Frederick Abbott explained to us, “Article 73 of the Trips Agreement, which covers the protection of security interests, already gives each government the right to power to take any measures it deems necessary to remedy the Covid-19 pandemic, including the suspension of intellectual property rights. “

If this option is already available, why are so many countries still waiting for formal authorization? The answer is that since the inception of the WTO, rich countries have punished developing countries for doing what they have the right to do according to the organization’s own rules. When South Africa, Brazil, India and Thailand sought to bypass monopolies on unaffordable antiretroviral drugs during the HIV / AIDS crisis, the United States and the European Union sometimes tried them. literally.

The current waiver proposal would therefore function as a promise from the grown-ups not to bully others during recess. Brazil’s response represents another option: victims of harassment can take control of their own situation. The new legislation drew support from across the political spectrum, passing both the Brazilian House and Senate with a large majority. Among other things, the bill aimed to establish a permanent provision to bypass intellectual property monopolies on essential technologies needed to deal with health emergencies (starting with the Covid-19 pandemic). And it would allow the transfer of vaccine know-how to alternative pharmaceutical manufacturers.

In September, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro enacted the bill, but not before using his veto power to remove or revise crucial clauses, including those specifying when and how the law would come into force, and those requiring pharmaceutical companies to share their knowledge. how, data and biological material. A month later, the Brazilian Senate recommended charging Bolsonaro with “crimes against humanity” for causing unnecessary loss of life in the pandemic. But the charges did not include his tampering with the intellectual property bill – an act that could result in even more unnecessary loss of life.

The law has returned to the Senate, which can override Mr. Bolsonaro’s vetoes. But the Senate missed its deadline to correct the legislation, then failed to fix another. He must now act quickly to remove the uncertainty created by Mr Bolsonaro’s cuts, as well as resist resistance from pharmaceutical industry associations in the United States and Europe, whose leaders have tried to kill the bill, even threatening to cut the vaccine supply if Brazil followed. .

Brazilian lawmakers need to keep an eye on the price. They drafted a law that would dismantle the pharmaceutical monopolies that are blocking a solution to the pandemic. There is a lesson here for everyone – both those who seek a waiver from the WTO and those who oppose it. Just like Brazil, the others will go too.

As for the richest countries in the world and the institutions that are indebted to them, it remains to be seen how much of their credibility they are willing to sacrifice in the service of allowing pharmaceutical companies to enjoy their monopoly profits a little longer.

We are waging a war on two fronts: one against Covid-19, the other against pharmaceutical companies whose profits depend on high prices and limited production. Sooner or later, we will realize, as Brazil has already done, that we cannot win on the first front without winning on the second.© 2021 Project union

Comments are closed.