The same dynamics that slowed and watered down the decision on the initial TRIPS waiver at the World Trade Organization (WTO) now looks likely to prevent a timely decision on expanding the waiver to cover treatments and tests. Calls for an extension to the original deadline of 17 December 2022 being led by the EU, Switzerland, Japan and the UK have been slammed by an alliance of health, human rights and fair-trade organisations.
Treatments and tests are vital in managing the pandemic, and, like vaccines, are unequally distributed. By September 2022, more than 330 Covid-19 diagnostic tests per 100,000 population were being performed daily in high-income countries, in comparison to 5.4 per 100,000 in low-income nations. Of the three billion tests used globally by March 2022, only 0.4% were administered in low-income countries.
Treatments are even more inequitably distributed, with most low-income countries unable to access the new oral antivirals such as Paxlovid and Lagevrio, with reported charges of up to US$700 respectively for a five-day course in high-income markets.
Ry Atkinson, Strategic Campaigner for Amnesty International Australia, said: “Throughout this pandemic, pharmaceutical companies have lobbied relentlessly to hold up the passage of an effective waiver while they’ve filled their pockets. Their strategy has always been to delay, ‘compromise’ on something they know to be unworkable and then point to its failure. But there’s a lack of courage at the WTO to stand up to them. We’re calling on the Australian Government to take a leadership role here and do exactly that. The December 17 extension to include treatments and tests is non-negotiable.”
Dr Patricia Ranald, Convener of the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network said: “The World Trade organisation appears likely to miss the December deadline to waive some monopoly patent rules and ensure more equitable access to Covid-19 treatments and tests for millions of people in low-income countries. High income countries have shown more regard for the profits of pharmaceutical companies than for saving lives. The Australian government should support a decision on December 17 to expand the June WTO waiver to include Covid-19 treatments and tests.”
Associate Professor Deborah Gleeson, Convener of the Political Economy of Health Special Interest Group of the Public Health Association of Australia, said: “Waiving intellectual property rules for Covid treatments and tests is vitally important to help low- and middle-income countries manage the pandemic, treat vulnerable people and reduce unnecessary illness and death. Extending the TRIPS waiver to cover these products can achieve more than the existing waiver for vaccines, as many of them are easier to reverse engineer, and are less reliant on the transfer of trade secrets, something the limited waiver doesn’t support.”
India and South Africa first put a proposal to the WTO in October 2020 to temporarily relax certain intellectual property rules in the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for Covid-19 medical products during the pandemic. These intellectual property rights included not only patents, but copyright, trademarks and trade secrets or know-how. On 17 June 2022 – after 20 months of negotiations – WTO members belatedly agreed on a narrow, limited waiver, applying only to patents, and only to COVID-19 vaccines in the first instance. While the decision applied only to vaccines, it included a clause committing the parties to decide whether to extend the waiver for COVID-19 treatments and tests within 6 months (December 17, 2022).