Intellectual property academics urge WTO to waive IP protection for COVID vaccines

covid vaccines

The temporary TRIPS waiver is considered to be a ‘necessary and proportionate legal measure’ that reduces IP barriers to increasing COVID-19 vaccine production, says a statement signed by over one hundred leading academics. Suspending these IP rules will enable an increase in manufacturing capacity, and move towards the equitable supply of vaccines – allowing low and middle-income countries to tackle the pandemic. This is crucial, as universal global access is vital for the global public good.

Ahead of negotiations at the WTO Council on 14 July, the academics call on the UK, Australia, Brazil, Japan, Norway, Switzerland, and the European Union to drop their opposition to the TRIPS Waiver proposal. As stated by Dr Hyo Yoon Kang from Kent Law School, ‘Intellectual Property rights are not absolute rights. They are granted and recognised under the condition that they serve the public interest. Right now, it is in the global public interest to provide access to vaccines and the technologies to produce them in the regions that need them’. 

The statement calls attention to the inadequacies of the current strategies used to address the inequitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, including the WHO’s COVAX initiative, which has had insufficient success at providing vaccines to low and middle-income countries. It is noted that as of June 2021 the COVAX scheme has delivered 90 million out of a promised 2 billion doses. The statement also recognises the failure of pharmaceutical companies to engage with the WHO’s voluntary COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP), which could have provided greater access to COVID-19 health products by sharing IP rights and data. Dr Aisling McMahon of Maynooth University said: ‘In the absence of sufficient voluntary engagement by industry with proposed initiatives to radically increase COVID-19 vaccine production to tackle this health crisis, either through voluntary licensing agreements or pooling resources through WHO initiatives like the C-TAP, the TRIPS waiver is a vital step to clearing IP obstacles for vaccine production.’ 

The statement is clear in its explanation that the existing provisions within the TRIPS Agreement are not sufficient in the context of a pandemic. It is acknowledged that a temporary suspension of the rules is in line with the commitment in the TRIPS Agreement to balance the rights of IP rights holders in high-income countries with transferring technology to lower and middle-income countries. 

The letter and list of signatories (as of 9 July 2021) is also available as a formatted PDF in the form of LSE Law – Policy Briefing Paper No.46: Academic Open Letter in Support of the TRIPS Intellectual Property Waiver Proposal (July 13, 2021) at SSRN