Covid resources: Developing countries at the mercy of their wealthier counterparts

Wealthier countries remain determined to keep essential Covid-19 resources to themselves, rather than facilitating easier trade of such items with developing countries, despite talks at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). 

In October 2020, India and South Africa proposed a temporary intellectual property waiver on equipment, medication and vaccines related to the Covid-19 pandemic. They presented a possible way to help to combat Covid-19, while ensuring future growth in developing countries. But negotiations on 9 March between WTO members yielded no concessions from several developed countries. 

“The waiver proposal offers all governments opportunities to take action for better collaboration in development, production and supply of Covid[-19] medical tools without being restricted by private industry’s interests and actions and, crucially, would give governments all available tools to ensure global access,” argues Doctors Without Borders (MSF)

The Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights [Trips] waiver could assist “by removing legal uncertainties and risks for potential producers and governments to quickly start preparing to scale up production and supply of treatments, vaccines, and other essential medical tools”, says MSF. 

The waiver would also be temporary — until herd immunity against Covid-19 is reached globally. 

The ongoing negotiations between WTO members prompted MSF president, Christos Christou, to write an open letter to “governments blocking the proposal to remove monopolies on Covid-19 medical tools during the pandemic”.

Christou writes in his letter that intellectual property, technology, data and knowledge of Covid-19 health technologies should be openly shared, allowing competent producers to produce and supply them worldwide.

The newly appointed director general of the WTO, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, told CBS News when asked about the waiver that a “sustainable agreement” is needed, and that this is in the hands of WTO members. 

“I’ve advocated what I’ve called ‘a third way’, which is we need to boost manufacturing right away, so that we can have increased supplies. So it’s not one or the other,” she said.

In the meantime, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America urged United States President Joe Biden to oppose the waiver. The body maintains that “India and South Africa argued without evidence that intellectual property is hindering the global response to the pandemic and that the waiver would help scale up research, development, manufacturing and supply of needed products.”

The Trips-waiver proposal is sponsored by 58 countries and welcomed by international organisations, including the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UN Programme on HIV/Aids. Yet, several wealthier countries and blocs, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, the EU Union, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, the UK and the US, remain against the proposed waiver.

Where does this leave developing countries?

By opposing the waiver and subsequently limiting the number of global suppliers of medical tools, developing countries remain at the mercy of developed countries and international pharmaceutical companies.

MSF argues that, “enabled by intellectual property monopolies, corporations continue to pursue secretive and limited commercial deals that exclude many low-and middle-income countries even amid the pandemic”.

Yuan Qiong Hu, a senior legal and policy advisor at MSF’s access campaign, says that countries cannot be expected to ask “pharmaceutical corporations to voluntarily do the right thing when these attempts have so far failed to secure global access to Covid-19 medical tools for people who urgently need them.”

Hu adds, “It’s time for a change, not charity.”

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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