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Current Status of the Campaign to Waive WTO IP Barriers to COVID-19 Medicines: Remarks From the People’s Summit to #EndCovidNow

The People’s Covid-19 Summit was a series of online days of action centered on the core idea that we know what we must do to fight COVID-19 and prevent the next variant -- the political will is all that’s missing. On the final day of the May 9-12 event, timed to coincide with Biden’s global COVID summit, Melinda St. Louis delivered the following remarks. 

By: Melinda St. Louis

Thanks so much for the opportunity to join our international partners and this fantastic panel tonight. My name is Melinda St. Louis, and I am the director of the Global Trade Watch division at Public Citizen, a U.S.-based consumer organization with half a million members and supporters that has advocated on behalf of the public interest for more than 50 years.

Global Trade Watch has led the fight against corporate-rigged “trade” agreements that provide special powers for Big Pharma to raise medicine prices, promote the outsourcing of jobs and undermine the food safety and other safeguards on which our families rely. 

We’ve been working to address global COVID vaccine inequality through a trade policy lens. Because, in addition to funding and sharing technology, part of the solution to vaccinating the world is getting rid of intellectual property barriers at the World Trade Organization through what is called the “TRIPS waiver.

The reason we need this TRIPS waiver is, WTO rules require countries to guarantee pharmaceutical corporations’ monopoly control, which means a long wait for production of generics. In the COVID-19 context, these intellectual property barriers impede the global production of vaccines and contributed to the shameful reality that still only 15% of people in low income countries have received their first shot and will be ill-prepared to ramp up rapid production of newer generation vaccines targeting new variants, as well as lifesaving treatments and diagnostics.

Over a year ago, India and South Africa proposed a TRIPS Waiver to temporarily waive those intellectual property barriers so countries could produce their own COVID medical products -- and there are dozens of facilities around the world ready to do so, if only they were allowed. 

After a powerful campaign led by many of the people here at the People’s Summit, President Biden announced support for a TRIPS Waiver on vaccines. After the first Global Covid Summit, the White House included support for delivering aTRIPS waiver in its pillar of commitments to vaccinate the world. But a year later, we still don’t have a waiver.

What we have instead is a shocking counterproposal introduced at the WTO last week. This counterproposal is not a waiver. Instead, it is a clarification of existing options that countries already have at their disposal. And it would even add new barriers to countries trying to bypass intellectual property barriers. 

The only WTO member that has signed off on that counterproposal is the European Union, spurred on by pharma-friendly Germany. The EU and WTO leadership are hoping to force countries to agree to this terrible proposal so the WTO can claim to have done something to address the barriers that it created. Sadly, the WTO director general called this counterproposal a “workable solution” at the Covid Summit today, when in fact it would be a step backwards.

But we will not be fooled. Civil society and experts from around the world agree: this counterproposal should be rejected in favor of a real, comprehensive TRIPS waiver. 

In addition to notable individuals like Nobel Prize-Winning Economist Joseph Stiglitz and Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, organizations that oppose this counterproposal include:

  • Public health organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, Partners in Health, and People’s Vaccine Alliance
  • Human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty international
  • Labor organizations, such as Public Services International
  • And importantly, civil society and prominent academics in India and South Africa (the countries behind the original waiver proposal).

The need to address these important intellectual property barriers was noticeably absent from the agenda of today's Covid Summit, which is very shortsighted, as world leaders claim to recognize the need to prepare for future strains of the virus and future pandemics.South African President Cyril Ramaphosa used the opportunity to call for the TRIPSWaiver that would cover vaccines, tests and treatments, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also called out the need to remove WTO intellectual property barriers in their statements at the summit today. It was disappointing that the White House did not include this previous commitment in its remarks or fact sheet from today’s summit, as this would have been a critical moment to galvanize world leaders.

We have less than a month before the biggest WTO meeting in years. We have to increase pressure on the US to resist the terrible counterproposal and show leadership to get a real TRIPS waiver. 

And, President Biden needs to update the US position to support a waiver for tests and treatments in addition to vaccines. The lifesaving treatments now on the market for those who can get them, were not yet available last year when Biden announced his historic support for a vaccine waiver. At this stage in the pandemic, tests and treatments are essential tools.

We have an easy tool I can share with you so you write to the White House on this. I encourage you all to do so, and share with your friends and family. 

And speaking of the White House, I’d now like to share with you a video from international public health workers that Public Citizen, Be a Hero, and others projected to President Biden at the White House at a moving candlelight vigil ahead of this summit. We shared messages from public health advocates around the world, as well as a special video from Ady Barkan reminding Biden of his personal promise to Ady to share vaccine technology. 

Video: Full #EndCovidNow People's Summit Pannel: Final Night

Video: Summary of White House Vigil

Video: Be a Hero's Ady Barken to President Biden: Keep your promise

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