Advocates for vaccine equity are calling on the Canadian government to join the push for a patent waiver to help in the global fight against COVID-19, just as the World Trade Organization (WTO) opens high-level talks on this and other issues.
The WTO began its latest ministerial conference on Sunday, at its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
Ahead of the four-day conference, the organization The Council of Canadians issued an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, urging the federal government to change its position on lifting intellectual property rules for COVID-19 vaccines and other therapeutics.
Speaking to CTV’s Your Morning on Monday, Nikolas Barry-Shaw, trade and privatization campaigner for The Council of Canadians, said the move would allow other countries to produce their own generic versions of these drugs and make them more widely available.
However, he said a handful of pharmaceutical companies have monopolized the supply of vaccines, using their position to charge exceedingly high prices that he says have “basically priced out almost half of humanity.”
“And so we’re in a situation today where 2.7 billion people still don’t have access to vaccines, and we’re at the risk of reproducing that situation as we start rolling out updated vaccines to deal with the new variants, and as we start rolling out treatments as well,” he said.
The question of whether to waive WTO protections on intellectual property for COVID-19 vaccines has persisted throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, with the pharmaceutical industry wanting to protect its innovations and advocacy groups saying the pandemic merits an exemption, especially for developing countries.
In 2020, India and South Africa led a joint proposal to suspend the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights for the course of the pandemic.
In its open letter, The Council of Canadians says Canada is “out of step with the rest of the world,” as more than 100 other countries have backed the waiver.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration announced its support for the waiver a year ago, a position European Union leaders criticized at the time.
Canada, meanwhile, has pledged to donate surplus vaccine doses through the global initiative COVAX. As of June 2, the federal government says more than 14.8 million doses have been delivered.
Barry-Shaw pointed to the billions of dollars in government funds used to develop COVID-19 vaccines, which he said have now become the private property of a handful of companies.
He also highlighted one signatory to the open letter, Achal Prabhala from the AccessIBSA project, which has pushed for greater access to medicines in countries such as India, Brazil and South Africa.
Human Rights Watch in December 2021 highlighted a list compiled by AccessIBSA and Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, of more than 100 companies in Africa, Asia and Latin America that have the potential to produce mRNA vaccines.
“So the idea that there’s only a … few companies and rich countries that can produce these vaccines is really quite self-interested and I don’t think we should really believe what these companies have to say about it,” he said.
With files from CTV News, The Associated Press and Reuters