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Big Pharma hates the WTO’s deal to let poorer countries make generic copies of COVID jabs. So do vaccine equity advocates

June 17, 2022, 10:26 AM UTC
Updated June 17, 2022, 3:03 PM UTC

The World Trade Organization on Friday morning finally announced a global agreement that will allow poorer countries to produce generic copies of COVID-19 vaccines—something vaccine equity advocates have been pushing for since early in the pandemic.

However, those campaigners are not happy with the result, and their opponents in Big Pharma are also seething.

While U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai hailed the deal as “a concrete and meaningful outcome to get more safe and effective vaccines to those who need it most,” pharma lobbyists said the WTO had sent “a dangerous signal not only to the pharmaceutical industry but to all innovative sectors.”

“The decision is a disservice to the scientists that left no stone unturned and undermines manufacturing partnerships on every continent,” thundered Thomas Cueni, director-general of the Geneva-based trade body IFPMA.

Specifically, Friday’s agreement allows developing countries to limit the intellectual property rights of companies like Moderna and AstraZeneca, so local producers can start making COVID vaccines based on their patented ingredients and processes, without first getting their approval.

Those countries will also be able to export the vaccines to other developing countries; however, reexportation of the vaccines will not be allowed. Countries are discouraged (but not banned) from using the waiver if they are already making COVID vaccines.

All this is far narrower than the original proposal made by South Africa and India in October 2020, which would have also waived IP rights for COVID tests and treatments.

Friday’s text says WTO members will decide within the next six months whether to extend the waiver—which will last for five years—to cover these things. For now, though, it’s a vaccines-only deal.

“This is absolutely not the broad intellectual property waiver the world desperately needs to ensure access to vaccines and treatments for everyone, everywhere,” said Max Lawson, cochair of the People’s Vaccine Alliance, an umbrella organization for vaccine-equity activists, in a statement.

Lawson attacked the EU, U.K., U.S. and Switzerland for blocking the original proposal (Politico reports the U.K. was the final holdout this week) and accused the WTO of passing “a technocratic fudge aimed at saving reputations, not lives.”

Meanwhile, Alliance policy lead Anna Marriott alleged that some delegations at the WTO meeting had not even been able to see the final text of the decision before voting on it.

A WTO spokesperson told Fortune, “The text was circulated among members before its adoption in the plenary where nobody said this was the case.”

Some vaccine equity advocates argued that the vaccine waiver debate marked an existential moment for the WTO, an embattled organization that has recently been struggling to prove its worth and credibility. Indeed, Friday’s agreement is the first trade pact the WTO has managed to cough up in seven years.

Ambassador Tai’s reaction to the deal seemed to implicitly acknowledge those concerns. “Many doubted the WTO could reach an outcome on a TRIPS waiver for intellectual property for COVID-19 vaccines,” she tweeted. “We got it done.”

Apart from the vaccine waiver, the WTO also agreed to reduce fishery subsidies. Per Bloomberg, director-general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said there had been “many moments” when she thought the organization would emerge from these negotiations “empty-handed,” but the results “show the world that WTO members can come together across political fault lines.”

According to Christos Christou, the international president of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the countries did not come together enough.

“The measures outlined in the decision will not address pharmaceutical monopolies or ensure affordable access to lifesaving medical tools and will set a negative precedent for future global health crises and pandemics,” Christou said.

“Despite lofty political commitments and words of solidarity, it has been discouraging for us to see that wealthy countries failed to resolve the glaring inequities in access to lifesaving COVID-19 medical tools for people in low- and middle-income countries.”

Moderna has already said (under considerable pressure) that it will never enforce its mRNA COVID-vaccine patents in poorer countries. However, vaccine equity campaigners criticized the scope of the promise—and the fact that the company still refuses to share its technology with a World Health Organization–sponsored mRNA vaccine development hub in Cape Town.

This article was updated on June 17 to include the quote from the WTO spokesperson.

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