US and EU “support” TRIPS waiver: What now?

The past couple days have been an exciting time for anyone paying attention to the shitshow that is the current Covid-19 vaccine situation. After stalling for months on end, the US and EU have finally come out in soft support of a TRIPS waiver (having blocked it since October 2020). Such a waiver, if approved by the World Trade Organisation, would temporarily suspend the patents currently assisting in restricting access to the world’s various Covid-19 vaccines. A time for celebration, it’s true. Unfortunately, it’s probably not as simple as it sounds. There are caveats. 

The US, in their statement on the 5th of May, expressed support for a TRIPS waiver, but not necessarily the TRIPS waiver which India and South Africa are backing (along with basically anyone not funded by a major pharmaceutical company or the Gates Foundation). Furthermore, they stress the “complexity” of the situation, the need for negotiations, and that this will probably all take quite a while for fancy people in cosy offices to sort out. In short, if a TRIPS waiver ever does get approved, it’ll most likely be many weeks from now and be riddled with concessions. The imperialists must have their pound of flesh, after all.

The EU, whose position was communicated by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, was even more vague than the US, expressing nothing more than a willingness to discuss a waiver. While some European member states have given it their full backing, others, such as Germany, have most certainly not. This lack of unity, especially considering Germany’s position as the bloc’s most powerful member, will probably complicate things quite a bit. The lack of clarity is also troubling. Does the EU really know their position, or was their announcement a rushed attempt to save face following the US announcement (which left them the only major opposition to the waiver)? Again, this bodes ill for anyone expecting a quick granting of a waiver.

And finally, should we ever get a waiver approved, it’ll only be the start in what needs to be a concerted, global effort to expand vaccine manufacturing and distribution. While some ‘developing’ nations have the technical know-how to manufacture vaccines once patents are lifted, many do not. Furthermore, even if countries are able to manufacture vaccines, there remains a serious shortage of raw materials (in part due to export restrictions imposed by a number of countries). Therefore, if we really want to create a true People’s Vaccine, we’ll need to not only waive patents, but also free up raw materials and transfer knowledge and technology from the Global North to everywhere else. 

Considering that it took over 6 months for the US and the EU to sort-of get behind the TRIPS waiver, I’m not particularly hopeful about any serious progress towards improving vaccine equity in the short-term. Children in the rich North will continue to be vaccinated while thousands die every day in countries like India. All the while, soft-spoken dignitaries will pat themselves on the back for the ‘progress’ they’re making in their weeks-long negotiations. It’s only a pandemic, after all. There’s no rush.


Sources:

  • EU supports COVID vaccine patent waiver talks, but critics say won’t solve scarcity (Reuters) [Link]
  • Covid: Germany rejects US-backed proposal to waive vaccine patents (BBC) [Link]
  • News Brief: On Biden’s TRIPS Waiver Support, Substance Matters More than Headlines (Citations Needed Podcast) [Link]
  • Statement from Ambassador Katherine Tai on the Covid-19 Trips Waiver [Link]
  • Statement from the Executive Director of UNAIDS, Winnie Byanyima on the decision by the United States of America to support the TRIPS waiver for COVID-19 vaccines [Link]
  • The People’s  Vaccine: FAQ [Link]