After months of debate, members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) will meet virtually today in Geneva to informally discuss the suspension of IP rights in COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. The proposal at center stage, which primarily aims to shrink the so-called “vaccine gap” between developed and developing countries, was submitted jointly by India and South Africa last October and is now backed by more than 100 (mostly developing) nations. To put the gap in perspective, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently reported that out of the 700 million vaccine doses administered globally, over 87% have gone to high or upper-middle income countries whereas low income countries have only received 0.2%. In high income countries, one in four people have received a vaccine, but in low income countries, that figure is just one in over 500.
Proponents of the plan want to see COVID-19 vaccines and medical products manufactured locally in an effort to boost worldwide vaccination numbers. If the plan were to pass, for example, it would likely redirect some production flows towards middle-income countries with growing or highly-developed pharma industries such as India, Egypt, and Morocco. However, although existing manufacturers have struggled to keep up with demand, the effort is being resisted by less enthusiastic nations including the U.S., EU, U.K., Switzerland, and Japan. Pharma groups and vaccine developers are also against the proposal, arguing that the scale of manufacturing is the real issue as opposed to IP rights.
While those for and against the proposal reportedly agree that a waiver will not automatically help local manufacturers produce vaccines, the suspension of IP rights is expected to prevent legal repercussions for non-compliance with the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). The waiver would also allow for compulsory licensing of vaccines, which is already allowed under the WTO rules, but specific TRIPS rules apply when products cross borders.
Today’s WTO meeting will be followed by another IP-focused discussion on Friday, April 30th.
 Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – April 2021, World Health Organization ( https://www.who.int/director-general/speeches/detail/director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19-9-april-2021) (Apr. 9, 2021).