The TRIPS waiver is needed more than ever

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The TRIPS waiver is needed more than ever

Wednesday, 05 January 2022 | ASHWANI MAHAJAN

The TRIPS waiver is needed more than ever

The lack of vaccination facilities in the larger part of the world and the expensive treatment for COVID-19 is haunting all, especially the poor

For the last two years, humanity is going through a terrible pandemic whose end is not in sight in the near future. Instead of ending, the pandemic  appears to be worsening with wave after wave. In the last few weeks, due to the spread of a new type of variant named Omicron, there has been an atmosphere of fear in the world. Humanity is not only faced with the burden of disease, lack of vaccination in a major part of the world and expensive medicines and treatment after the disease is haunting all especially, the poor.

In such a situation, universal availability of vaccines and cheap medicines and treatment in case of disease, has become a necessary condition to save humanity. It is worth noting that companies have patents and other intellectual property rights of medicines and equipment necessary for the treatment of Covid-19. Moreover, companies also possess control over the formulations and raw materials for the vaccines.

Due to the alertness of the government, the efforts of scientists and the hard work of the coronavirus warriors, India has been better off than many countries of the world in battling this pandemic. With nearly 142 crore vaccinations, 65 percent of the country’s adult population fully vaccinated and about 80 percent with at least one dose, it is believed that Indian population has got good immunity to fight Covid-19. It is hoped that India will also be able to save itself from the new Omicron variant as well. But the rest of the world is not so fortunate. There are many countries in the world where the process of vaccination has not yet started. Expensive medicines and treatment are no less than a death knell for the poor people of these countries.

What does an exemption from TRIPS mean? In October last year, a petition was made by India and South Africa in the World Trade Organization seeking exemption from Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), so that vaccines and corona medicines in the world are available to the entire humanity on affordable basis. Globally, TRIPS mandates countries to honour intellectual property rights. The exemption from TRIPS would mean that companies that have intellectual property rights on vaccines, medicines and medical equipment would be revoked for the period so decided, and many countries of the world, including India, would be able to produce these vaccines, medicines and devices on their own. This demand of India and South Africa got the support of more than 100 member countries of WTO. Although initially, the US was opposing it, later it changed its stand and supported exemption from TRIPS, though only for the vaccine. The European Union continued to oppose the proposal. Although there has been some relaxation in their stance recently, but still, they are proposing many conditions before giving their consent.

The Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization from 30th November to 3rd December in Geneva (Switzerland), where a decision was expected, has been postponed due to the spread of the pandemic. Due to the threat of Omicron, now again there is concern in the whole world whether humanity will continue to suffer without vaccine and treatment, or a decision will be taken soon for this. It is believed that had the proposal of India and South Africa on TRIPS waiver was accepted in time, the speed of vaccination across the world would have been much faster. But it is a matter of regret that the countries like the US and European Union, whose companies possess most of patents and other intellectual property rights (IPRs), had been blocking the prevention and cure from disease. It is worth noting that the US, though has consented for TRIPS exemption from vaccine, but has not yet agreed to extend the same for medicines.

The TRIPS waiver is needed more now than ever before. With the advent of Omicron, the importance of TRIPS waiver has increased much more. It is true that if this decision is taken soon, we can still save many lives. Although some people in India, are also arguing that today, India is capable of vaccinating its entire population and it will soon achieve the objective of universal immunisation; moreover, when many companies are already giving voluntary licenses of their patented medicines to Indian companies, there is hardly any importance of TRIPS waiver for India. They also say that India has manufactured an effective vaccine, sufficient for India and even for export. It can also take advantage of IPR and sell the same to the world. In this regard we must not forget that the Indian and South African demand for TRIPS waiver was not only for themselves but for the whole of humanity. Some foreign companies in India have given voluntary licenses of medicines necessary for the treatment of coronavirus to Indian companies and their price is still very high. However, if these drugs are exempted from the provisions of TRIPS, then they will be much more affordable and help the poor people in their treatment in India and the rest of the world. Not only this, according to the terms of the voluntary license, Indian companies can generally make and sell these medicines in India itself.

In such a situation, it is believed that even after getting voluntary licenses, these medicines will not be available to more than half of the world’s population, which will be a very unfortunate situation for the humanity. In fact, the delay in the TRIPS waiver goes against the spirit of the TRIPS Agreement of the World Trade Organization and the ‘Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health’. Therefore, a voluntary license is no substitute for a compulsory license.

Today a new type of apartheid is emerging in the world and that is between vaccinated and unvaccinated. Recently, in the ministerial conference, which was to be held in Geneva, Switzerland, it was also stipulated that only those who have been fully vaccinated with a vaccine certified by World Health Organisation, would be able to participate, and others will have to satisfy organisers by getting the RTPCR test done, every 72 hours. Significantly, there are many countries in the world where vaccination has not yet started or is in a very nascent stage. Such countries whose representatives are not vaccinated will be left unrepresented in international forums.

In such a situation, the need of the hour is that all the rich countries including the US and Europe, who are endangering humanity by opposing the demand for TRIPS waiver, be forced to change their stand.The press, media, intellectuals and people’s representatives should create such an environment that these countries give their consent for TRIPS waiver. This is the only way to save the humanity.

(The writer is Professor, PGDAV College, University of Delhi. The views expressed are personal.)

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