Groups urge Trudeau to support global access to COVID-19 vaccines at the WTO

More than 30 Canadian and international civil society organizations recently urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to end Canada's ongoing opposition to a proposed temporary World Trade Organization (WTO) waiver seeking to limit intellectual property barriers and boost global access to lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines.
Photo credit: Jess Hurd/Global Justice Now via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

BY OBERT MADONDO@Obiemad | MAR. 12, 2021

On the eve of World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings on intellectual property rights, scheduled for March 10-11, 2021, more than 30 Canadian and international civil society groups urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to end Canada’s cruel ongoing opposition to a proposed temporary waiver of certain obligations under the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).

In a joint letter send to Trudeau on March 10, the organizations argued that the game-changing proposed WTO waiver, jointly introduced by India and South Africa in October 2020, would remove some of the intellectual property barriers currently limiting the global production and distribution of lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments. The letter’s signatories include: The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Trade Justice Network, Amnesty International, National Union of Public and General Employees, Unifor, MiningWatch Canada, Canadian Union of Public Employees, HIV Legal Network, Council of Canadians, Canadian Society for International Health and the United Church of Canada.

In a recent letter (PDF) urging U.S. President Joe Biden to “reverse a dangerous and self-defeating position taken by President Trump that threatens the prospects of ending the COVID-19 disaster,” more than 400 U.S. and international civil society organizations stated that the India-South Africa WTO proposal was “supported by more that 200 nations at the World Trade Organization”. Prominent international organizations and public figures figures supporting the proposal include Oxfam International and Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the outspoken director general of the World Health Organization (WHO).

International human rights groups and vaccine equity advocates have repeatedly argued that the proposed WTO waiver would significantly increase access to lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines and related technologies for Black-majority sub-Saharan Africa and other poor regions of the so-called Global South with overwhelming BIPOC (Black people, Indigenous people, People of Colour) majorities. Canada is one of the numerous white-majority countries that have so far consistently obstructed the proposed waiver.

In their letter, first published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the civil society groups argued that while “Canada has maintained that it has not rejected this proposal,” Canada “has also not said yes, joining Australia, Brazil, the EU, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, the U.K., and the U.S. in obstructing the waiver at the WTO TRIPS Council.”

Stuart Trew, senior researcher and director of the Trade and Investment Research Project at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said: “Canada’s own COVID-19 legislation in 2020 authorized the temporary suspension of patents and trade secrets to protect public health. The TRIPS waiver would guarantee the same kind of flexibility to all countries, especially those who cannot affordably manufacture or import therapeutic products, PPE and vaccines.”

RELATED: COVID-19: The world’s “poorest and most vulnerable will be trampled in the stampede for vaccines,” says WHO chief

In their letter, the groups labelled the global COVID-19 pandemic “the most severe global health and economic crisis in generations” that “has disproportionately impacted women, migrant and lower-wage workers, racialized and other marginalized groups” in Canada and around the world. They highlighted the fact that while Trudeau was “among the first to call for global equal access to COVID-19 health technologies” at the beginning of the global COVID-19 crisis in early 2020, he has since become “a glaring example” of the “mismatch between words and deeds” when it comes to the global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

“After all of Canada’s talk about the need for a global effort to fight COVID, the failure to sign on to the WTO waiver is disappointing to say the least. The waiver can speed up the COVID response, making it more accessible and affordable for all. Importantly, it will ensure public health and people’s lives are being prioritized over the profits of pharmaceutical corporations,” said Jesse Whattam, co-ordinator of the Trade Justice Network.

“While provinces across Canada are rolling out their vaccination plans, a fifth of the world’s population is not expected to receive doses until 2022. Free and equal access to vaccine is a human rights priority and no-one should be denied access to a vaccine because of their economic status or the country they live in. Canada has a responsibility to be part of the global solution and lead wealthier countries in endorsing this waiver,” said Ketty Nivyabandi, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada.

According to the organizations’ letter:

Everyone, everywhere needs out of this pandemic as quickly as possible. Canada must be part of the global effort to save lives—not an obstacle. We call on the Canadian government to support the waiver now.

The India-South Africa WTO proposal calls for “a waiver from the implementation, application and enforcement of Sections 1, 4, 5, and 7 of Part II of the TRIPS Agreement in relation to prevention, containment or treatment of COVID-19”. South Africa and India argued that it was “important for WTO Members to work together to ensure that intellectual property rights such as patents, industrial designs, copyright and protection of undisclosed information do not create barriers to the timely access to affordable medical products including vaccines and medicines or to scaling-up of research, development, manufacturing and supply of medical products essential to combat COVID-19.”

Via the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, below is the full text of the civil society groups’ letter to Trudeau:

Dear Prime Minister,

Since the beginning of the pandemic, world leaders have repeatedly spoken of the need for global solidarity to get us all through this once-in-a-century health crisis. You were among the first to call for global equal access to COVID-19 health technologies. But as time passed, calls for unity have been followed by a disappointing lack of commitment by many wealthier nations, including Canada.

Canada’s unwillingness to endorse a proposal at the World Trade Organization to make COVID-related vaccines, treatments and technologies more affordable and readily available for all countries is a glaring example of this mismatch between words and deeds.

In October 2020, South Africa and India made a joint proposal to temporarily waive certain obligations under the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) until the COVID-19 emergency is over. The waiver would mean WTO member states would not have to grant or enforce patents and other intellectual property rights covering COVID-19 drugs, vaccines, diagnostics, and other technologies such as masks and ventilators.

This waiver proposal is not a panacea. But with these barriers and restrictions removed, WTO member states and the scientific community can continue working on developing and distributing new diagnostics, vaccines, medicines, and medical supplies, without fear of litigation risk and trade sanctions under the TRIPS Agreement.

As it stands now, vaccine technology and knowledge are being treated as private property by pharmaceutical corporations, despite much of this research being paid for by over $100 billions of taxpayers’ money. As communities across the world adapt to the “new normal” of the pandemic, it’s business as usual for pharmaceutical corporations. With their WTO-protected exclusive rights and monopolies, pharmaceutical companies are able to charge higher prices and inhibit the generic competition demonstrated time and again as key to bringing and keeping prices down, particularly for low- and middle-income countries.

In the context of the ongoing public health emergency, the result is that rich countries such as Canada are securing private contracts with vaccine makers while many developing countries haven’t seen any vaccine doses at all. While Canada has ordered enough doses of the multiple available vaccines to inoculate its population many times over, some estimates say that vaccines will not become available to a fifth of the world until 2022.

The proposal at the WTO to temporarily waive certain TRIPS Agreement restrictions would help break down barriers to scaling up the manufacture and supply of lifesaving COVID-19 medical tools across the world. Canada has maintained that it has not rejected this proposal. But Canada has also not said yes, joining Australia, Brazil, the EU, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, the U.K., and the U.S. in obstructing the waiver at the WTO TRIPS Council.

Canada misleadingly claims that existing flexibilities in the TRIPS Agreement, such as those for the issuance of compulsory licences to manufacture patented medicines (as affirmed in the 2001 Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health), are sufficient. However, as Doctors Without Borders and other health advocates have pointed out, these flexibilities are only accessible on a case-by-case basis that can take years to settle with patent-holding firms or foreign governments. Responding to COVID-19 requires goods subject to exclusive patent and other IP claims and restrictions to become accessible and affordable now.

Last month, more than 400 organizations in the United States called on President Joe Biden to support the waiver at the TRIPS Council. More than 100 civil society organizations have called on the European Parliament to also support it, as have many EU parliamentarians themselves. The Director-General of the World Health Organization is calling on member states, including Canada, to support the waiver. Canadian civil society organizations and labour unions have been making similar calls for months.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the most severe global health and economic crisis in generations. In Canada and around the world the virus has disproportionately impacted women, migrant and lower-wage workers, racialized and other marginalized groups. Millions of lives have been lost to this virus.

Everyone, everywhere needs out of this pandemic as quickly as possible. Canada must be part of the global effort to save lives—not an obstacle. We call on the Canadian government to support the waiver now.

Signed:

Trade Justice Network
Amnistie internationale Canada francophone
Amnesty International Canada
Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA)
United Steelworkers (USW)
Group of 78
National Farmers Union
National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE)
Unifor
MiningWatch Canada
Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)
HIV Legal Network
CWA Canada, The Media Union
Canadian Health Coalition
Public Service Alliance of Canada
Trade Justice PEI
Grandmothers Advocacy Network
Canadian Jesuits International
Interagency Coalition on AIDS and Development
Canadian AIDS Society
Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights
KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives | Initiatives oecuméniques Canadiennes pour la justice
Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network
Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions
Ministry for Social Justice, Peace, and Creation Care with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto
Jesuit Refugee Service – Canada
Jesuit Forum for Social Faith and Justice
Réseau québécois sur l’intégration continentale (RQIC)
Congress of Union Retirees of Canada
ATTAC-Québec
Canadian Coalition for Global Health Research / La Coalition Canadienne pour la recherche en santé mondiale
Council of Canadians | Le Conseil des Canadiens
Friends of Medicare
Canadian Society for International Health / Société canadienne pour la santé internationale
The United Church of Canada | L’Eglise Unie du Canada
Hospital Employees’ Union
Centre Oblat • A Voice for Justice
Migrant Workers Alliance for Change
Centrale des syndicats démocratiques (CSD)
Syndicat de professionnels et professionnelles du gouvernement du Québec (SPGQ)

Obert Madondo

Obert Madondo

Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based digital artist, blogger, photographer, graphic designer, web designer, digital rights enthusiast, aspiring filmmaker, former political aide, former international development administrator, and online publisher. Obert is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Canadian Progressive, an independent political blog dedicated to producing fearless, progressive, adversarial, unapologetic, and activism-oriented journalism situated right at the intersection of politics, technology and human rights. Follow Obert on Twitter: @Obiemad