ATHENS, West Virginia — While the coronavirus pandemic still ravages the world, low- and middle-income countries struggle to vaccinate their populations, with some countries reporting vaccination rates as low as 2.2% as of September 2021. A prime example is the Democratic Republic’s capital of Kinshasa, where, in “a megacity of 12 million” people, health workers administered just 40,000 shots by the close of September 2021. Due to growing global vaccine inequities and the rapid emergence of COVID-19 variants, countries are calling for a TRIPS waiver. By waiving intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines, global manufacturing and production capacity can rapidly increase as low- and middle-income countries are able to produce the vaccines within their borders.
COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution in Developing Countries
One of the reasons for the inequitable access of vaccines in low- and middle-income countries is due to high vaccine prices and intellectual property barriers, which prevents these developing countries from manufacturing the COVID-19 vaccine on their own.
The vaccination rates of low- and middle-income countries are low, putting those that live there at increased risk of contracting not only the primary virus that causes COVID-19 but the more communicable Delta variant as well. Despite the administration of about seven billion vaccine doses globally, “less than 1% of people in low-income countries are fully vaccinated.”
The TRIPS Waiver Benefits Developing Countries
TRIPS, otherwise known as the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, is a series of “global agreements on intellectual property and its patent, copyright, industrial design, trademark and trade secret regulations,” which the World Trade Organization introduced for the first time in 1995.
Providing the IP waiver gives these underserved countries “the ability to manufacture the COVID-19 vaccine,” accommodating “more flexibility in design and production” up until the World Health Organization declares “herd immunity against COVID-19.”
The TRIPS waiver could also benefit high-income countries in Europe and parts of Asia as well as Canada, Qatar and even the U.S. The Eurasia Group, in a report commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, found that equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines globally could “generate economic benefits of at least $153 billion in 2020-21 and $466 billion by 2025 in 10 major economies.”
Countries For and Against the TRIPS Waiver
More than a year ago, India and South Africa made a proposal for a TRIPS waiver, earning the backing of 62 WTO members. However, several high-income countries, such as some European Union states, the United Kingdom, “Japan, Canada and Australia,” expressed their opposition to the proposal, citing concerns about possible impacts on pharmaceutical innovation.
These opposing nations say waiving those rights could stymie enthusiasm by vaccine development companies to invest money in research and development if that investment is just freely given to other countries without appropriate compensation. The United States, however, has shown its support of negotiating a waiver, with U.S. Trade Rep. Katherine Tai announcing the support of the Biden administration in the TRIPS discussion back in May 2021. Additionally, more than 100 low-income countries declare their support for a TRIPS waiver.
The Poverty Reduction Potential of the TRIPS Waiver
By ensuring there is an equitable distribution of vaccines around the globe, the gap between vaccination rates in high-income and low- and middle-income countries may begin to close, according to observers. A waiver could help alleviate some inequality surrounding health care.
Also, the waiver could help those same countries potentially supply vaccines to areas that are currently facing logistical distribution and supply challenges by rapidly increasing research, development and production. The TRIPS waiver also could help improve access to life-saving treatments and increase vaccination to improve health in these countries. Without enough vaccines, these countries may suffer from worsened economic, social and health inequities, which can lead to an increase in global poverty.
How to Help
Global Citizen has launched its own recovery plan campaign, which aims to fight the pandemic by ensuring equitable access to COVID-19 treatments, tests, and most importantly, vaccines to low- and middle-income countries. Among other commitments, the campaign calls on world leaders to commit to vaccinating at least 60% of the world’s population by the end of 2021. Global Citizen also encourages supporters to use the hashtag #StopTheBlock in social media as a way to call on governments to support the TRIPS waiver.
With a TRIPS waiver, low- and middle-income countries will not only be able to potentially offer communities global equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines but could also potentially provide global economic boosts over the next few years.
– Grace Watson